Solar Flares Are Worryingly on the Rise: What You Need to Know About Them

Solar flares carrying radiation 10,000 times more powerful than the largest nuclear bomb are hurled at Earth from the sun. They have coincided with spectacular auroras in our skies and historic, catastrophic events. Only the Earth's magnetic field protects us.
solar flares

Solar flares happen on the sun, which is approximately 93 million miles from Earth. What are they? How do they happen? Can they harm us? Is there a link between solar flares and catastrophic earthquakes that have occurred in the past?

Solar flares are explosive events on the Sun

A solar flare is a sudden release of energy from the sun’s surface. They are the largest explosive events in the solar system and can be up to 10,000 times more powerful than the largest nuclear bomb.

Solar flares happen when the sun’s magnetic fields get tangled

Solar flares occur when the sun’s magnetic field lines become tangled and release their energy. The sun’s magnetic field is created by the flow of plasma (hot, ionized gas) from the sun’s interior.

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1094px Picturing the Suns Magnetic Field 25513266790
Sun’s Magnetic Field by NASA Goddard Space Flight Center under CC BY 2.0

Electromagnetic radiation is emitted from solar flares

The energy from a solar flare is released as electromagnetic radiation. This radiation can be harmful to humans and other life on Earth. 

The intensity of a solar flare is used to classify it

Classification of solar flares is based on the intensity of the flare. The strongest flares are called X-class flares. These can cause widespread damage to power grids and other infrastructure on Earth. 

The smallest solar flares are categorized as A-class, followed by classes B, C, M, and X, which refer to the largest.

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Large eruptions of plasma are called coronal mass ejections 

In layman’s terms, a solar flare is a sudden, intense burst of radiation from the Sun’s surface. In contrast, a coronal mass ejection is a large release of plasma and magnetic field from the Sun’s corona. 

coromna
Coronal mass ejection by NASA Goddard Space Flight Center under CC BY 2.0

Solar flares are often used as a misnomer for coronal mass ejections (CMEs). CMEs are large eruptions of plasma and magnetic fields from the sun’s surface. CMEs can cause geomagnetic storms on Earth, which can disrupt power grids, navigation systems, and communication systems. 

Some solar flares display as a flash of light even to the naked eye

Solar flares can be observed with the naked eye as sudden flashes of light. They can also be seen in x-ray and ultraviolet images of the sun. 

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Studying solar flares is important to know their effects on Earth 

Studying solar flares is essential for understanding the sun and its effects on Earth. Solar flares are one of the main drivers of space weather, which can impact our planet in various ways. Solar flares can cause a temporary disturbance of the Earth’s magnetic field and disrupt radio communications. They can also cause auroras.

Aurora borealis over Saana fell
Aurora borealis over Saana fell by WikiLucas00 under CC BY-SA 4.0

Interesting solar flare events of note

You may not remember the Carrington event, but there have been quite a few X-class solar flare events aside from the famous Carrington event that have wreaked havoc with technology systems on Earth while at the same time giving amazing auroras displays.

  • The Carrington Event: The Carrington Event, named after astronomer Richard Carrington who witnessed it, was a notable past solar flare event. The Carrington Event was a solar storm in early September 1859, just a few months before the 1860 solar maximum. A massive solar flare hit Earth in 1859, causing widespread auroras and disrupting telegraph systems.  
  • The 2006 December Storms: A series of solar flares that caused auroras worldwide and disrupted power grids in Sweden and South Africa.  Dec. 5, 2006, was the day of the incident. With little warning, the sunspot burst into flames on the east side of the sun. One of the most powerful flares in the last 30 years was registered on the “Richter scale” of flares, which ranks X1 as a major event.
  • The 2008 Sichuan Earthquake: A solar flare hit Earth on the same day as a massive earthquake in China, causing auroras as far south as Australia. No correlation has been proven between solar flares events and earthquakes. The Sichuan earthquake was caused when the Plateau of Tibet was shifted eastward due to the Indian-Australian plate’s northward movement, causing the earthquake itself to be a thrust fault. The X-class solar flare event that created amazing auroras in the sky that day can only at this stage be considered coincidental. According to Chinese state officials, the earthquake killed 69,180 people, including 68,636 in Sichuan province; 18,498 people are still unaccounted for, and 374,176 people were injured.

More needs to be understood about solar flares

When supermassive blasts of space radiation from the sun reach the Earth, is it likely that the rest of Earth’s forces of nature, such as tectonic plates, remain unaffected? Can these other catastrophic events be considered mere coincidence? More needs to be understood about solar flares as scientists anxiously watch the developments of Sunspot AR3038.

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Featured image credit: Magnificent CME Erupts on the Sun by NASA Goddard Space Flight Center under CC BY 2.0