Solar Storm Heading Toward Earth

This image from NASA’s Solar Dynamic Observatory captures the first of three giant flares erupting from the sun’s surface on June 10, 2014. Credit: NASA/SDO/Goddard/Wiessinger

A temper tantrum that the sun unleashed this week has led to a series of powerful flares and solar storms—including one that will reach Earth on Friday the 13th.

Three X-class flares, the most powerful of solar blasts, have erupted off the sun’s fiery surface in the past three days.

Such solar flares are powerful bursts of radiation generated on the sun’s surface, each one many times wider than our planet. They can cause disturbances in Earth’s atmosphere, disrupting GPS and radio signals. The disruptions can last for as long as the flares, anywhere from minutes to hours.

That is exactly what happened on Tuesday, June 10, resulting in short blackout periods in high-frequency communications that lasted for a few hours. Polar-route airline flights are typically lengthened by these disruptions.

The two back-to-back giant flares on Tuesday emerged from the southeastern region of the sun. Each one produced a billion-ton cloud of charged particles directed toward Earth. The flares were classified as X2, according to NASA. An X-class storm denotes the most intense flares, and an X2 is twice as intense as an X1.

However, the sun wasn’t done yet, as a third powerful flare erupted from the same location on Wednesday, June 11. All of the flares were caught on camera in real time by a NASA spacecraft, the Solar Dynamics Observatory, which monitors our home star 24 hours a day.

These ultraviolet snapshots from NASA's SDO satellete shows  three X-class flares erupting from the sun June 10 and 11, 2014.  Credit: NASA/SDO
Ultraviolet snapshots from NASA’s SDO satellite shows three X-class flares erupting from the sun June 10 and 11, 2014.
Courtesy of NASA/SDO

Eruptions of solar materials that travel away from the sun are known as coronal mass ejections (CMEs). Blasts that accompanied the week’s flares eventually merged into CMEs, and National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) computer models suggest that they will give a glancing blow to Earth’s magnetic field in coming days. They may produce a minor geomagnetic storm when they arrive midday on Friday the 13th.

Sky-watchers, particularly those in high-latitude regions, should be on the lookout for possible auroras visible in the northern skies.

Meanwhile, the sun’s fury is not over yet. NOAA forecasters predict that more CMEs could be on the way, with predictions calling for a 30 percent chance of more X-flares erupting on June 12.

Also, two new sunspots on the surface of the sun are turning toward Earth now, and they are showing signs of possessing unstable magnetic fields. That means they may erupt with flares at any moment. This onslaught of solar tempests was not unexpected, since the sun is currently at the peak of its 11-year cycle in activity.

So, if forecasters are right, it looks like we may be in for more turbulent space weather in the coming days.

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Changing Planet

Andrew Fazekas, aka The Night Sky Guy, is a science writer, broadcaster, and lecturer who loves to share his passion for the wonders of the universe through all media. He is a regular contributor to National Geographic News and is the national cosmic correspondent for Canada’s Weather Network TV channel, space columnist for CBC Radio network, and a consultant for the Canadian Space Agency. As a member of the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada, Andrew has been observing the heavens from Montreal for over a quarter century and has never met a clear night sky he didn’t like.