The past month has seen a startling increase in activity by the Sun with four powerful X-class solar flares recorded; including one that measured as a X9.3, the strongest since 2005. Coronal mass ejections (CME) – huge arcs of plasma that erupt from the Sun’s surface – interfered with GPS, and high-frequency radio transmissions, and generated spectacular aurora displays. But, in addition to the sudden intensity of these events, this recent burst of activity has left scientists scratching their heads. The Sun is supposed to be entering its solar minimum, its quietest period during its eleven-year cycle of activity.
The last solar maximum peaked in April 2014, and was the quietest maximum recorded in over a century; surprising researchers that predicted that Solar Cycle 24 would break new records in terms of intense activity. But, while this cycle’s maximum still saw a comparatively higher sunspot count than what is being seen now; the two huge sunspots groups that generated the recent flares and CMEs: AR2673, and AR2674 are unusual for a solar minimum. September 6th’s X9.3 flare was more intense than any flare generated during Cycle 24’s maximum.
This sudden unpredictability in solar weather, whether it persists or not, could be a major concern when it comes to forecasting major solar flares, and CMEs; due to the potential hazards such storms pose to both our technology, and human health. Whitley’s 2012 ebook, Solar Flares: What You Need to Know, outlines the dangers this poses to human civilization if we’re not properly prepared for a major solar storm.
- This photograph of the Sun, taken on December 19, 1973, during the third and final manned Skylab mission, shows one of the most spectacular solar flares ever recorded, spanning more than 588,000 kilometers (365,000 miles) across the solar surface.