A massive sunspot may be set to erupt, unleashing the most intense form of solar flares that may last for days.
Sunspot AR3089, which is facing Earth, has now acquired a delta-class magnetic field, indicating that it has accumulated enough energy to produce X-class solar flares.
According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), the sunspot has a 5% chance of producing an X-class outburst. If that happens, the flare might cause a severe geomagnetic storm in the Earth’s atmosphere, causing damage to infrastructure and electromagnetic communication systems.
Sunspots are black spots on the sun’s surface caused by extremely powerful coronal magnetic fields. When these powerful magnetic fields realign, they can produce solar flares, which are bursts of electromagnetic radiation, as well as coronal mass ejections, which are massive plumes of solar plasma (CMEs).
Delta-class fields are frequently associated with higher levels of solar activity because they cause very large sunspots with reversed magnetic polarity, according to spaceweather.com.
Solar flares ejected from sunspots are classed according to the strength of their X-rays: C-class, M-class, and X-class. C-class flares are common and have few visible consequences on Earth, M-class flares are moderate in intensity and may create modest geomagnetic storms, and X-class flares are the most intense but rare. X-class flares are ten times stronger than M-class flares, and an X10 flare is ten times stronger than an X1 flare.
While the chances of an X-class flare occurring from sunspot AR3089 is low, if one were to occur, the resulting geomagnetic storms could have damaging effects on the Earth. According to NASA, X-class flares hitting Earth may result in damage to satellites, global transmission problems, worldwide radio blackouts, and potentially give airline passengers near the North and South poles small radiation doses.
GPS radio signals must pass through the Earth’s ionosphere between the Earth receiver and the satellite in orbit, meaning that when a geomagnetic storm is in effect and the ionosphere is disturbed, the radio signal is distorted and the receivers cannot accurately get a position.
The largest and most powerful X-class flare to hit the Earth is thought to have caused the 1859 Carrington Event, which resulted in bright aurorae being seen around the world, and caused sparking and even fires in some telegraph stations. It’s thought that if a storm of this magnitude occurred today, it would result in extended outages of the electrical power grid.
The sun’s activity follows 11-year cycles, with its sunspot activity levels and subsequent number of solar flares and CMEs increasing as it approaches the solar maximum. The last solar minimum was in December 2019, and the next solar maximum is forecasted for 2025, however, the sun’s activity is higher than previously predicted for its cycle stage.
Solar Cycle 25, the current cycle, is the 25th cycle that has occurred since we began recording sunspot activity in 1755, and according to spaceweather.com, “is on track to outperform” Solar Cycle 24.
Solar Cycle 24 was an average cycle in terms of sunspot activity, meaning that more frequent and more powerful solar flares and CMEs are to be expected in coming years compared to the previous decade.