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A sunspot, called AR3038, grows extremely fast: its surface is doubled in just 24 hours! It is now about 2.5 times the size of Earth. According to Spaceweather.com, this sunspot has an unstable beta-gamma magnetic field, which can cause an M-class solar flare, but this sunspot faces directly toward our planet, which can cause radio interruptions.
Solar eruptions occur when energy stored in twisted magnetic fields (usually over sunspots) is suddenly released. This release of energy then results in an eruption of radiation over the entire electromagnetic spectrum, from radio waves to X-rays and gamma rays. It can also be accompanied by explosive jets of material, called coronal masses. Some sunspot groups have a more complex magnetic structure than others and are more likely to lead to a solar flare.
Beta-gamma type sunspots are not the most active (the palm goes to delta type sunspots), but are still among the largest and most complex. In addition, it is oriented directly towards the Earth, which can have unfortunate consequences. This is because when a solar flare hits the Earth’s upper atmosphere, X-rays and ultraviolet rays ionize the atoms, making it impossible for high-frequency radio waves to bounce, creating a radio blackout.
More or less threatening events
These radio faults are classified (from R1 to R5) according to their severity; they touch the parts of the globe that are exposed to the Sun during the eruption. Solar eruptions move at the speed of light, and it takes about eight minutes to travel the approximately 150 million kilometers that separate us from the Sun.
Earth has already been confronted with this type of event on several occasions. Two outbreaks that occurred in the spring thus caused level R3 blackouts across the Atlantic, Australia and Asia. In March 1989, the whole of Quebec was thrown into the dark for several hours after a powerful eruption that caused significant voltage fluctuations on the electrical network in the Canadian province. Several other power grids throughout North America felt the effects of this storm and reported incidents.
The largest solar storm our planet has ever experienced took place in 1859. The phenomenon, called the “Carrington Event”, released energy equivalent to 10 billion one-megaton atomic bombs! This intense stream of particles severely disrupted the telegraph network of the day, causing several polar northern lights, visible even in the tropics! If an event of the same intensity occurred again today, the damage would obviously be significant.
And we have already avoided the worst: a powerful coronal mass ejection passed through Earth’s orbit in July 2012 … a week before our planet was in this very place! Within a few days we could have found ourselves in the 18th century. This outbreak would have greatly disrupted the global electricity grid, air transport, telecommunications or other electronic equipment.
A relatively sustained solar activity at present
Fortunately, the AR3038 is not that dangerous. At the moment it is a little north of the solar equator and the Earth will be in its sight a few more days. When a sunspot forms near the equator, it takes just under two weeks to reach the other side of the Sun – where it no longer poses a threat to us.
Despite its particularly rapid growth, this giant sunspot is not so worrying. If it were to produce eruptions in our direction, they would only be class M eruptions – the most common type of solar eruption. These events typically cause short-term radio outages that affect the Earth’s polar regions, according to Spaceweather.com. Minor radiation storms can sometimes follow this type of eruption.
If particles from coronal mass emissions are absorbed by the Earth’s magnetic field, they instead trigger powerful geomagnetic storms. The current of very energetic particles from the Sun is channeled and propagates along magnetic field lines near the poles. These particles ionize the atoms in the upper atmosphere, which can not remain in an excited state: they return to a lower energy state by releasing energy in the form of a photon, which creates magnificent colored northern lights.
But this flux of charged particles can also disturb the magnetic field, so it sends satellites crashing to Earth! SpaceX has already paid the price for this phenomenon, leading to the loss of about forty of its satellites in February. Thus, extreme geomagnetic storms can paralyze our communications systems, including the Internet. The sun is particularly active right now, because in 2020 we started a new solar cycle (each cycle lasts about 11 years). This activity is expected to increase steadily over the next few years and peak in 2025. So far, the number of sunspots observed already exceeds the forecasts significantly.