Those Sunspots Approaching Earth Could Bring Blackouts

A new group of sunspots that has come into view of Earth has the attention of the U.S. Space Weather Prediction Center.

The area, referred to as 2205, spat out an x-ray flare that produced a moderate radio blackout today, according to the center’s website. Earlier this week, it let loose several coronal mass ejections, explosions of magnetic fields and plasma from the sun’s atmosphere that can knock out power grids and disrupt navigational systems.

Most of the material in today’s flare, along with the earlier eruptions, was pointed away from Earth, thus sparing the planet severe storms.

“We’re kind of seeing a bit of resurgence now,” said Robert Rutledge, lead operations at the center. “The sun is making a second run at us.”

Sunspots are large magnetic storms that appear as dark areas on the sun’s surface and can be seen from Earth. A large and active sunspot complex last month caused several radio blackout storms before moving away from the side of the sun facing Earth.

A person walking down the street isn’t going to be vaporized by a solar storm striking Earth. The planet’s magnetic field acts as a shield.

It’s the terrestrial improvements humans have made that tend to suffer. Severe coronal ejections can cause power networks to collapse, prompt airlines to divert planes from polar routes and disrupt telemetry for spacecraft.

The storms also create the auroras in polar regions that look like shimmering sheets of light across the sky.

Storm Types

The sun can touch off three kinds of storms on Earth that the Boulder, Colorado-based center tracks -- geomagnetic, solar radiation and radio blackout. Those events are ranked on a five-step scale with 1 being the least harmful and 5 a good reason to stock up on candles.

The coronal mass ejections thrown out by the current sunspot complex were pointed away from Earth and not a problem. As it rotates around the sun and points toward the planet, that could change, the center said on its website yesterday.

A minor radio blackout happened earlier this week, while in September, a tandem of coronal ejections from a single sunspot complex touched off a series of moderate geomagnetic storms. In March of 1989 entire the Canadian province of Quebec suffered a blackout caused by a solar storm, according to NASA’s website.

The sunspots that are now becoming visible will take about two weeks to traverse the side of the sun pointed at the Earth, Rutledge said. In about a week, the system will be in perfect position to do the most damage, he said.

Carrington Event

The concern that lingers with many researchers has its roots in a storm recorded in 1859 by British astronomer Richard Carrington.

Known since then as the Carrington Event, the storm electrified telegraph lines, shocking operators, and created an aurora seen in Cuba and Hawaii, according to the National Aeronautics and Space Administration website.

A comparable storm that erupted in 2012 missed the Earth, sparing power grids and orbiting satellites.

Until researchers see a complex on the surface of the sun they can’t know what it might do, Rutledge said. “Two weeks ago we had the biggest region we had in 25 years and it didn’t do anything.”

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