A sunspot capable of creating a massive solar flare is pointed right at Earth. Not only is it pointed directly at Earth, but it is growing rapidly. While this may sound like the beginning of a plot out of a Roland Emmerich disaster film, we’re not ready to begin extinction-level event proceedings just yet. Not only does it sound more dire than it is, but sunspots and their resulting flares are more common than you may think. Still, the sunspot being tracked by Spaceweather.com is a fascinating study of our sun and how it impacts the Earth every day in ways we never know.
According to the website that tracks solar flares, geomagnetic storms (the coolest name in weather), and other cosmic weather events, sunspot AR3038 grew to two and a half times the size of Earth on Monday. That makes the sunspot just under roughly 32,000 kilometers. “Yesterday, sunspot AR3038 was big. Today, it’s enormous. The fast-growing sunspot has doubled in size in only 24 hours,” they reported. Occasionally, sunspots like this can create a solar flare that will hit the Earth’s atmosphere.
Solar flares hitting the atmosphere are nothing new. Astronomers have been tracking the 11-year solar activity cycle since their contemporaries declared war on the British in the late 1700s. As recently as April and May, two solar flares hit and caused blackouts over the Atlantic Ocean, Australia, and Asia.
When a sunspot creates a solar flare, it travels at the speed of light and takes eight minutes to reach Earth. X-rays and ultraviolet radiation ionize atoms when it hits the upper atmosphere. This process makes it impossible to bounce high-frequency radio waves off them, creating a blackout. These aren’t all bad, though; an upside to solar flares hitting the atmosphere is the production of vibrant auroras, sometimes in places not typically seen.
Just before the Civil War, in 1859, a flare known as the Carrington Event slammed into the Earth with the same intensity as 10 billion atomic bombs. While it fried telegraph systems worldwide, it also created auroras seen as far south as the Caribbean. This kind of event could cause trillions in damage if it were to happen today. A complete collapse of the cellular network and satellites falling from the sky. While it may not entirely be on the level of Roland Emmerich, it would undoubtedly disrupt your social media swiping and many more critical daily processes.
If an Earth-facing sunspot is sitting on the sun’s equator, it will take about two weeks to travel around the widest point of our star before disappearing to the other side. At the moment, AR3038 sits just to the north of the widest point, and astronomers believe it is halfway through its journey to the other side. That means it will be visible and relevant for the next few days. This seemingly frightening sunspot will likely only produce M-class flares. We can expect brief radio blackouts and minor radiation storms. Despite its rapidly growing size, it isn’t quite time to go into an apocalyptic panic just yet. Instead, keep your eye on the sky for some pretty majestic, once-in-a-lifetime auroras.