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The sun just launched three huge solar flares in 24 hours. What it means.

24 hours. What it means.

By Aabusad PathanPublished 2 months ago 4 min read
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The latest outburst is the most intense of the current 11-year solar cycle

Three top-tier X-class solar flares launched off the sun between Wednesday and Thursday. The first two occurred seven hours apart, coming in at X1.9 and X1.6 magnitude respectively. The third, the most powerful of the current 11-year “solar cycle,” ranked an impressive X6.3.

Solar flares, or bursts of radiation, are ranked on a scale that goes from A, B and C to M and X, in increasing order of intensity. They usually originate from sunspots, or bruiselike discolorations on the surface of the sun.

Sunspots are most common near the height of the 11-year solar cycle. The current cycle, number 25, is expected to reach its peak this year. The more sunspots, the more opportunities for solar flares.

Solar flares and accompanying coronal mass ejections, or CMEs, can influence “space weather” across the solar system, and even here on Earth. CMEs are slower shock waves of magnetic energy from the sun. Flares can reach Earth in minutes, but CMEs usually take at least a day.

All three of the X-class solar flares disrupted shortwave radio communications on Earth. But the first two flares did not release a CME. And, after careful review, scientists confirmed that the third also did not produce one. Therefore, no additional impact on Earth is expected.

High-frequency radio waves propagate by bouncing off electrons in Earth’s ionosphere. That’s a layer of Earth’s atmosphere between 50 and 600 miles above the ground

When a solar flare occurs, that radiation travels toward Earth at the speed of light. It can ionize additional particles in the lower ionosphere. Radio waves sent from devices below it then impact that extra-ionized layer and lose energy, and aren’t able to be bent by ions at the top of the ionosphere. That means signals can’t travel very far, and radio blackouts are possible.

Three back-to-back radio blackouts occurred in response to the trio of flares, but primarily over the Pacific and Indian oceans. They were rated “R3” or greater on a 1 through 5 scale.

According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Space Weather Prediction Center, that results in a “wide area blackout of [high frequency] radio communication, [and] loss of radio contact for about an hour on sunlit side of Earth.” Low-frequency navigation signals, like those used on aircraft traveling overseas, can be degraded too.

Disruptions to AT&T cell service?

There was rampant speculation that Thursday morning’s pervasive AT&T blackout was tied to Wednesday’s solar flares. The Space Weather Prediction Center, however, released a statement noting that “it is unlikely that these flares contributed to the widely reported cellular network outage.”

“First it occurred in the night hours for North America, so any possible impact would have not occurred here. Flares and their associated radio bursts only impact dayside systems if at all,” Kunches said in an email. “And, even if this was to occur during your daylight hours, chances are near nil that cell service would be affected.”

Solar flares don’t usually affect cellphone frequencies. Radio blackouts associated with solar flares affect transmissions in the high-frequency 3 to 30 megahertz band. Most cellphone carriers operate between 698 and 806 megahertz.

Finally, Wednesday’s flares didn’t unleash CMEs. Such blasts can induce electric currents that can overwhelm circuitry in satellites and even knock them offline or destroy them. In February of 2022, 40 SpaceX satellites were knocked out by a CME. Even had there been a CME, it probably would have taken more than a day to reach Earth.

Minimal Earth effects

Because the first two flares on Wednesday didn’t release CMEs, it means skywatchers won’t be treated to displays of the northern lights, as is often the case when such geomagnetic storms reach Earth

The third solar flare, which was the biggest and occurred Thursday evening Eastern time, also didn’t produce a CME.

Since CMEs are slower-moving than solar flares, it generally takes several hours for them to fully radiate away from the solar disk and become visible on sensors. That’s why experts weren’t initially sure if any CMEs had been launched. Now that time has passed, it’s apparent none were.

Interestingly, there could be a few auroral displays in the high latitudes on Sunday night as a minor CME — unrelated to the flares -- grazes the Earth.

NatureScience
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