‘Monster’ solar flares that knock out power grids and satellite navigation systems may soon become predictable. Scott McIntosh, director of the National Center for Atmospheric Research and lead author of a study just published in Nature Communications said that his group has linked the timing of the flares with the position of the magnetized bands in the Sun’s atmosphere.

Comparable to the jet stream that encircles the Earth, these bands carry opposite magnetic polarities that tend to warp and buckle upwards. When they’re far apart from each other, sun spot activity is at its highest. As they get closer together – and to the Sun’s equator – their opposing energies create heightened instability.

Once these bands are in very close proximity, their energetic interactions give ‘birth’ to new bands that appear at the opposite poles. And it is when there are four bands with polar energies pulsing across the surface of the Sun that the probability is greatest for the giant solar flares that have, in the past, wreaked varying degrees of havoc on Earth 

McIntosh and his team have previously written about the Sun’s magnetic bands. But it’s only in the last several years that they’ve been exploring the possible relationship of their activity to solar flares. If their research proves to be correct, and they really can forecast space weather events, then preparations can be made on Earth that will either prevent disruption of services – like phones and power – and/or save power companies millions of dollars by letting them know when to shut off the grids before a power surge wipes them out.

“If the projections are right then this needs to be followed up,” McIntosh said. He’d like to see relatively cheap satellites launched to keep track of weather on the Sun.