Sunspots aren’t usually a real concern, even if they double overnight and grow to twice the size of Earth itself. That’s exactly what happened with Active Region 3038 (AR3038), a sunspot that happens to be facing Earth and could produce some minor solar flares. While there’s nothing to worry about, it means a potentially exciting event could be on the way – spectacular aurora borealis.
Although scientists continue to point out that humans are not at risk from sunspots like AR3038, that doesn’t stop the popular media from worrying about them, especially those that appear to be growing rapidly. But it all goes without saying, according to Rob Steenburgh, head of the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s space weather forecasting office.
He points out that this type of rapid growth is exactly what we expect at this point in the solar cycle, the 11-year repeating pattern that began again in 2019. He also points out that sunspots of this type don’t typically produce the kinds of dangerous solar flares that could knock out satellites or disrupt power grids. It just lacks the complexity.
Remove all ads on Universe today
Join our Patreon for just $3!
Get the ad-free experience for life
Solar flares occur when the magnetic fields surrounding a sunspot break and rejoin in complex patterns, some of which result in flares being ejected into the solar system. If these hit Earth, they could potentially damage some infrastructure, especially those that rely on electricity. However, they are much more likely to produce spectacular auroras when their ions collide with Earth’s magnetic field.
They are rated by severity and scaled from B (weakest) to C, M, and X (strongest). X-flares have their own grading system, and the most powerful solar flares, X20, occur less than once per 11-year solar cycle and typically do not face Earth.
The likelihood of an X20 forming due to AR3038 is tiny, although there was a 10% chance that it would produce a less powerful X-flare. More likely are M-flares, where AR3038 has a 25% chance of developing before decaying in size and extent, as sunspots normally do.
It doesn’t look like any of those flares will be aimed at Earth, however, as AR3038 has rotated back out of view and is no longer facing us. There is another active region, AR3040, which has had 6 C class flares in the last 24 hours. So there could still be a chance of spectacular auroras if the planet happens to be in the way of one of those C-class flares.
If not, the whole AR3038 rapid growth episode will be yet another example of the public’s general concern over what appears to be a menacing turn of events, yet is fairly common and even harmless. With all of the equipment currently in place to monitor the Sun, the general public can rest assured that we will receive at least some warning before a potentially damaging flare affects our Earth-based systems. But it can take a while for that to happen, so don’t hold your breath.
USA Today – ‘No need to panic’ as sunspots with potential for solar flares double overnight, scientists say
Space.com – A giant sunspot the size of 3 Earths is directly facing us
Earthsky.org – Solar activity: Small geomagnetic storm
UT – Astronomy Jargon 101: Sunspots
UT – A colossal flare erupted from the far side of the sun
Composite image of the sun’s surface on 6/21/22. AR3038 can be seen at top right.
Credit – NOAA Office of Space Weather Forecasting