‘Monster sunspot’ spitting out flares

After a very eventful March, April was fairly quiet in terms of solar activity. But with the arrival of a new sunspot region on the Earth side of the sun, solar activity could begin to heat up once again in May.

Researchers at NASA’s Solar Dynamics Laboratory called this new region a “monster sunspot.” This region, labeled AR 1476, is gigantic in terms of sunspot regions: It measures about 60,000 miles across.

Sunspots are temporary phenomena on the sun that appear darker than surrounding regions and are caused by intense magnetic activity. Most solar flares and coronal mass ejections originate in sunspot regions.

Large solar flares are usually associated with coronal mass ejections, which are huge masses of solar particles that are hurled into space by the sun at about 3 million miles per hour.

Coronal mass ejections can cause solar radiation storms that disrupt radio signals, satellite transmissions and expose astronauts and passengers of high-altitude aircraft to increased amounts of radiation. They create geomagnetic storms that can cause power blackouts and extensive damage to power grids. Geomagnetic storms also illuminate the Earth’s magnetic field, causing brilliant auroras.

The sunspot region is already very active, sparking several C-class solar flares over the past few days.

Scientists classify solar flares using three categories: C, M and X, with C-class solar flares being the weakest and X class solar flares being the strongest. NOAA is forecasting a 65% chance of M-class solar flares and a 10% chance of X-class solar flares over the next 24 to 48 hours.

The chance for solar flares and Earth-directed coronal mass ejections will be at elevated levels as long as the large sunspot region is on the Earth-facing side of the sun. Since the sun takes 26 days to make one full revolution at the equator, the monster sunspot region will continue to be a threat to Earth for at least the next 13 days.