Leading up to 2013 many solar researches forecast that activity on the sun would be heating up as it transitioned into its solar maximum cycle, something that occurs about every 11 years.
New data from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, which monitors solar activity in conjunction with other agencies and space projects, indicates that this wave of powerful solar storms may be starting.
Solar storms, which are responsible for emitting Coronal Mass Ejections (CME’s), come in waves. In the last 48 hours, the NOAA has identified multiple, powerful X-class solar flares that have been emitted on the eastern tip of the sun. While the sun regularly hurls enormous clouds of super-heated plasma into space, the associated solar flares are usually not powerful enough to cause any disruptions to earth.
X-class flares, however, are extremely powerful and when the charged particles released by the sun slam into the earth they can wreak havoc. They’ve been responsible for everything from interruptions to critical satellite services like global positioning systems to widespread power outages. In 1989 an X-class solar flare was responsible for taking Quebec’s hydro power stations offline, leaving millions of people without electricity.
According to Space Weather reports, activity on the sun has surged over the past two days, and there’s a 40% chance that it’s going to continue through this week, just as the sun moves into a position where it can send a flare directed at earth.
While the three solar flares recorded in recent days are on the lower end of the classification scale, the sunspot area which produced them is reportedly layered with a large and complicated magnetic field. This leaves the door open for the possibility that a future flare emitted from this region could be significantly more powerful than its predecessors.
The primary concern with X-class flares is that one of them could potentially become a solar Killshot, or an earth directed flare so powerful that it could literally take down large portions of the global power grid in a cascading electrical outage resulting from highly charged particles slamming into electrical lines and transformers.
Solar Activity Surges
A sunspot on the sun’s eastern limb is crackling with powerful X-class solar flares.
AR1748 announced itself during the early hours of May 13th with an X1.7-class eruption (0217 UT), quickly followed by an X2.8-class flare (1609 UT) and an X3.2-class flare (0117 UT on May 14). These are the strongest flares of the year so far, and they signal a significant increase in solar activity.
NOAA forecasters estimate a 40% chance of more X-flares during the next 24 hours.
All of these flares have produced strong flashes of extreme ultraviolet radiation.
Here is the view of the latest eruption, which registered X3.2 on the Richter Scale of Solar Flares, from NASA’s Solar Dynamics Observatory.
The explosions have also hurled coronal mass ejections (CMEs) into space. Coronagraphs on board the Solar and Heliospheric Observatory are tracking the clouds
When the action began on May 13th, the instigating sunspot was hidden behind the sun’s eastern limb, but now solar rotation is bringing the active region into view.
Sunspot AR1478 is not particularly large, but it is complex, with many dark core scattered through its zone of influence. This is a sign of a complicated overlying magnetic field. When tangled lines of magnetic force criss, cross, and reconnect–voila!
Via: Space Weather
While the probability of a Killshot flare striking earth is quite low, they do happen.
In addition to the many recorded events over the last century and a half that were responsible for electrical outages, fires, and other disruptions, a modern day Killshot class flare occurred in 2003, leaving many scientists stunned.
Physicists in New Zealand have shown that last November’s record-breaking solar explosion was much larger than previously estimated, thanks to innovative research using the upper atmosphere as a gigantic x-ray detector.
Researchers from the University of Otago used radio wave-based measurements of the x-rays’ effects on the Earth’s upper atmosphere to revise the flare’s size from a merely huge X28 to a “whopping” X45, say researchers Neil Thomson, Craig Rodger, and Richard Dowden. X-class flares are major events that can trigger radio blackouts around the world and long-lasting radiation storms in the upper atmosphere that can damage or destroy satellites. The biggest previous solar flares on record were rated X20, on 2 April 2001 and 16 August 1989.
“This makes it more than twice as large as any previously recorded flare, and if the accompanying particle and magnetic storm had been aimed at the Earth, the damage to some satellites and electrical networks could have been considerable,” says Thomson. Their calculations show that the flare’s x-ray radiation bombarding the atmosphere was equivalent to that of 5,000 Suns, though none of it reached the Earth’s surface, the researchers say.
It’s doesn’t happen often, but when it does, the effects on Earth are, as Neil Thomson notes, “considerable.”
So much so that a flare powerful enough to cause a grid-down infrastructure collapse would have an immediate impact on day-to-day life, including the halting of just-in-time delivery systems for essential goods like food and fuel.
While we may not be able to predict when the next Killshot will hit earth, we can be prepared for it.
Perhaps we’ll never see such an event in our lifetimes – probability suggests we won’t.
But what if we do?