Sunspots aren’t really a cause for concern, even if they doubled in size overnight and grew to twice the size of the Earth itself. That’s exactly what happened with Active Region 3038 (AR3038), a sunspot that just happens to be facing Earth and can produce some small solar flares. Although there is no reason to be alarmed, this means that a potentially exciting event may occur – the amazing aurora borealis.
Although scientists consistently point out that people aren’t at risk from sunspots like AR3038, that doesn’t stop the popular media from worrying about it, especially those that appear to be growing rapidly. But that’s all on par with the cycle, according to Rob Steinberg, head of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Office of Space Weather Forecasts.
He points out that this kind of rapid growth is exactly what we’d expect to see at this point in the solar cycle, the 11-year pattern that started back in 2019. He also notes that sunspots of this type don’t usually produce the kinds of dangerous solar flares. That could disrupt satellites or disrupt power grids. It simply lacks complexity.
Solar flares occur when the magnetic fields surrounding sunspots break and rejoin in complex patterns, some of which send vibrations into the solar system. If it hit this ground, it could potentially damage some infrastructure, especially those that depend on electricity. However, they are more likely to create stunning auroras when their ions collide with the Earth’s magnetic field.
Rated in severity, they range from B (weakest) to C, M, and X (strongest). X flares have their own classification system, and the most powerful solar flares, X20, occur less than once per 11-year solar cycle and typically do not encounter Earth.
The probability of X20 forming due to the AR3038 is extremely small, although there is a 10% chance of creating a less powerful X glow. M flares, which AR3038 have a 25% chance of developing before fading out in size and size, are likely to be M flares, as sunspots usually do.
However, it doesn’t look like any of those flares will be directed toward Earth, as the AR3038 has been rotated back out of view and no longer facing us. Another active area, the AR3040, has had 6 Class C flares in the last 24 hours. So there might still be a chance of some amazing aurora borealis if the planet happens to be in the path of one of those Class C flares.
If not, the entire episode with the AR3038’s rapid growth would prove another example of the general public’s concern about what appears to be a menacing turn of events, but very common and even harmless. With all the equipment currently set up for observing the sun, the general public can rest assured that we will have at least some warning before any potentially harmful glow affects our Earth-related systems. But it may be some time before that happens, so don’t hold your breath.
USA Today – Scientists say ‘don’t panic’ as sunspots that can cause solar flares double in size overnight.
Space.com – We are facing a giant sunspot the size of 3 planets right now
Earthsky.org – Sun activity: a small magnetic storm
Utah – Astronomy 101 Glossary: Sunspots
Utah – A massive glow erupted from the far side of the sun
Composite image of the surface of the sun on 6/21/22. The AR3038 can be seen at the top right.
Credit – NOAA’s Office of Space Weather Forecasts
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