Our Sun has started sending out more powerful flares in 2023

More coronal mass ejections and geomagnetic storms are ahead.
Ameya Paleja
Solar surface with solar flares
Solar surface with solar flares

-Vitan-/iStock 

New Year's Eve might be a big event on planet Earth, but for the giant ball of hydrogen and helium floating nearly a hundred million miles away, it is just a blip in its timeline. Nevertheless, marking the beginning of the human year 2023, the Sun has begun buzzing with activity and has sent some powerful solar flares our way. Here's what it means for us.

Solar flares are eruptions of electromagnetic radiation from the Sun when magnetic fields in some regions get very intense. The Sun goes through an 11-year cycle where its poles flip and magnetic fields move to align themselves to the changed poles.

The solar cycle goes through a minimum and maximum period, and the latter of the current cycle is expected to occur in the year 2024-25. Intense magnetic fields can even slow down convection in the regions, which drops the temperature of the surface, giving it a darker appearance. Scientists call it a sunspot.

Dramatic Sunspots

Sunspots can be viewed from the Earth, and scientists have been using them to predict the activity on the solar surface for years. When the Sun approaches its solar maximum, the number of sunspots has been seen to increase.

At times sunspots give out extremely powerful solar flares, which as X-Class flares. Those lower in intensity are classified as in M-class (moderate intensity) or A, B, or C (low intensity) classes.

Sunspot AR3182, which has been active for a while, has given out quite a few X-class flares on three occasions since January 1 and was also involved in a coronal mass ejection (CME), a release of magnetically charged plasma from the solar surface. Another sunspot, AR3190, is about four Earth-wide and has an unstable magnetic field, which could result in more X-class solar flares in the near future, Spaceweather.com reported.

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AR3190 directly faces the Earth and can be seen using a backyard solar telescope.

Geomagnetic Storms

While solar flares travel almost instantly to the Earth, CMEs can take up to 15-18 hours to arrive. As these travel through space at varying speeds, they can even pile up due to slow-moving traffic, which can be experienced over the next few days.

Since a CME is loaded with charged particles, it interacts with the Earth's magnetic field, which accelerates them along its field lines toward the poles. This is a geomagnetic storm and results in a bright display of light visible as auroras, and as the intensity of the storm increases, the area where auroras are visible increases considerably.

The interaction with the atmosphere also causes a temporary loss of radiowaves, which can impact communications and navigation services, causing radio blackouts. The intensity of the blackout depends on the strength of the solar storm, and with an increasing number of sunspots, one can expect more intense geomagnetic solar storms ahead.

Satellites are also affected by geomagnetic storms and are equipped with evasive maneuvers to protect themselves in such an event. Scientists are working toward developing reliable warning systems against these events. An extremely powerful solar storm, though can wipe out critical infrastructure and bring the global economy to a grinding halt.