Massive Solar Activity This Week…But We’re All Still Here

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With all of the other weather threats going on later this week and the looming end of the Mayan calendar, we’re also dealing with an increasingly active sun. Active regions on the sun’s surface, increased solar flares, coronal mass ejections and a nearing peak of the 11-year solar activity cycle translate to not only more media attention but a stronger, higher frequency of their effects reaching Earth.

Active Regions 1428, 1430 and 1429 are visible on the sun's surface.

Here’s the latest: Sunspot AR1429 (AR = Active Region) continues to turn toward Earth and expand. AR1429 has already erupted earlier in the week producing large X-class flares and an associated CME (Coronal Mass Ejection). The strongest flare, an X-5 class, erupted [video] just this morning (00:28 UTC). Over the next 48 hours the risk for additional X-class flares remains at 30%. Given the current activity, risk levels should go up for the next few days and this weekend. Fortunately, the latest CME is expected to miss Earth but some of its effects will be observable.

What’s this mean? The sun goes through an 11-year cycle of activity and inactivity and we are nearing the 2013 peak of activity. As this peak occurs, the surface of the sun becomes more active as solar flares and CMEs become stronger and more frequent. However, it’s thought that CME’s do not always originate from solar flares but rather the sun’s corona, although there is still debate about the origin of CMEs. This morning’s ejection is not on a direct-to-Earth path though it could disrupt our planet’s magnetic field today and tomorrow.

Four times the size of Earth, Active Region 1429 is easily viewable with solar scopes. NEVER LOOK DIRECTLY AT THE SUN without proper eye protection.

The effects of coronal mass ejections on Earth can be unnoticed or they can be catastrophic. Most of the CMEs are not ejected on a path to impact Earth, but even those that do rarely cause more than minor disruptions to radio communications and navigation (GPS), while enhancing the aurorae for viewers within the northern latitudes. At the other end of the spectrum, a catastrophic CME can destroy electronics equipment and a worst-case CME scenario could destroy all (or most) electronics which would, as the theory goes, end life as we know it by causing massive and long-lasting power disruptions and outages. A CME in 1989 caused a massive blackout in Quebec, Canada and last October an unusually strong solar storm allowed the aurorae to be viewed in the United States as far south as Alabama. And if you’re thinking that it’s a mighty long way from the sun to the Earth and how could an eruption this morning cause interference today and tomorrow…then please know that CMEs typically travel between one and two million miles per hour with some traveling four million miles per hour (93 million miles is the distance from sun to Earth).

How bad could it be?

YourWeatherBlog has written about solar flares, solar storms and CMEs before — including in January when I wrote about the strongest solar storm since 2005 (with its M3.2 solar flare eruption) which has now been overshadowed by the current storm. You can read that post here, while our Fred Rogers wrote about last August’s storm here.

For now, there’s not too much to worry about.

 

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