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Giant sunspot AR1944 returns, with a bang!

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It's back: sunspot AR1944, which launched the first X-class flare of this year a few weeks ago, has returned to the Earth-facing side of the Sun. Now christened AR1967 (which is how the spot will be referred to from here on), the spot is rounding the side of the Sun to face Earth once more, having already launched a M4-class flare as it rounded the proverbial bend as experts say that thesunspot could produce even more flares in the future.

So, what does this mean for us here on Earth?

First up, the good: the aurora, better known as the Northern Lights (see pictures here).

The aurora are caused when the energized particles from the Sun come into contact with Earth's upper atmosphere. When the charged energy hits Earth, the particles react and the atoms/molecules in Earth's upper atmosphere give off the photons we see as the Northern Lights. Why are the lights different colors? Each individual atom gives off a different glow when excited by the incoming solar wind.

For us living in the Northern hemisphere, auroras are common in high latitudes such as Alaska, Canada, the Scandinavian countries, and other such high-latitude places. For those at mid latitudes, such as the Northern continental United States, auroras don't find their way into these skies very often, but when they do, they are often dazzling.

However, it never hurts to look, especially when a solar flare is headed straight for earth.

Right now, the Sun is at solar maximum, the peak in activity in its 11-year cycle. Because blasts of energy from the Sun are at their most powerful and frequent right now, the chances of aurora working their way down to the continental United States is at its greatest. In May, 2005, I saw a stunning display of auroras that ranged from blue-violet overhead to green curtains near the horizon from the Cleveland, Ohio area (41 degrees North)..

Now part 2, the bad: electronic malfunctions.

As the Sun becomes more active as it nears solar maximum, the chances for Earthly impacts of solar storms increases dramatically. When the highly-charged particles of the solar wind hit our upper atmosphere, they interact with Earth's magnetic field, causing disruptions in electronic communications and power grids. One job for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) is to keep an eye on solar weather which, NOAA chief Jane Lubchenco warns, could have dire effects for us on Earth.

So, if the Sun has always gone through an 11-year cycle of activity, why all the panic now?

Answer: the concern comes from our way of life. When the Sun was at its last peak period in the early 2000s, we were nowhere near as reliant on satellites as we are today. Think back to 2001, far fewer people had a cellphone in their pocket, a GPS unit in their car, and satellite TV in their house. Now, while losing anyone of these conveniences (imagine having to actually read a map!) would be a minor irritation, the fact that solar storms can damage power grids can have massive implications. In March 1989 (during the Sun's maximum 2 cycles ago) a massive solar storm knocked out power over a large section of Canada. The frightening fact, in the larger scheme of things, this stormwasn't that big, certainly not the perfect solar super storm. Worst case scenario: if transformers and capacitors were really fried, power could be out for months, essentially transporting us back to the pre-industrial age.

Hopefully, neither you nor a relative will be in a hospital if that ever happens.

The good news is that, while our technology is making us more susceptible to the impact of solar activity, it can also help prevent the problem. As scientists learn more about the solar wind and what it can do, more protections can be built-in to our electronics to better ensure that they don't get fried by a powerful blast of solar energy. For even better news, this solar storm is not expected to be of the severe variety that can fry electronics, either.

On the other hand, with solar maximum here right now, strong storms will be at their most frequent, which means that we had better prepare, anyway.

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