Record number of sunspots observed in June has solar scientists worried

Solar flares and possible mass ejections could disrupt communication and electrical grids on Earth.
Ameya Paleja
The recent solar flare as spotted by NASA SDO
The recent solar flare as spotted by NASA SDO


A record number of spots on the Sun's surface has worried solar scientists a lot these days. The star of our solar system is defying predictions and heading into a much stronger solar cycle, which could impact us here on Earth.

Sunspots are areas of high-intensity magnetic fields on the solar surface that result in a temporary halting of the convection process. This results in a drop in the temperature in the localized region, making them appear darker than the rest of the solar surface.

These regions are associated with solar flares, intense eruptions of electromagnetic radiation, and coronal mass ejections (CMEs), which send out plasma particles from the Sun's corona into space.

For centuries scientists have used sunspots as precursors to predict the behavior of the Sun during its 11-year solar cycle, a process where the poles of the Sun flip completely.

Record number of sunspots

In December 2019, our Sun entered its 25th Solar cycle since we began documenting them, and it was predicted that, much like its predecessor, this cycle would also be weak. The solar cycle could be one of the weakest ones we have observed in the past century.

Since September last year, though, the Sun has been scripting a very different story, with the number of sunspots spotted increasing month upon month. Last month, the number of sunspots averaged 163, which matches the solar cycle of 2002, which was one of the stronger cycles seen in recent times.

In October 2003, the Sun let out some powerful solar flares, and CMEs detected as far as the Voyager spacecraft at the end of the solar system. On Earth, there were referred to as the Great Halloween Storms and included an X45 intensity solar flare, the strongest on record.

What it means for us now

Solar scientists had predicted that the number of sunspots during the 25th Solar cycle would reach a modest 125 every month at its maximum. With the Sun now closer to the peak of its cycle, the number has risen to 163, worrying scientists that the peak might arrive almost a year earlier or the cycle could get much stronger.

Earlier this week, sunspot AR3354 let out an X1 class solar flare, and the resultant radiation caused a deep shortwave radio blackout over the Pacific Ocean and the western parts of the US.

Class X are the most intense of solar flares, and the solar storms accompanying such events can impact life on Earth. Extreme energy events can disrupt electrical grids as well as damage spacecraft.

Services like Starlink have faced the wrath of extreme solar weather, and the growing constellation of satellites in orbit remains at high risk for damage from such events.

In 1859, a similar event shut down telegraph services in US and Europe for several days, but today could potentially bring the world to a grinding halt. Worsening space weather also brings the delights of auroras to other parts of the world.

Scientists are now keenly watching the Sun to see if the sunspots will become more active soon.

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