Thursday, January 4, 2024

Coronal mass ejection from colossal New Year's Eve solar flare will strike Earth today

The coronal mass ejection CME was hurled into space by an X-class solar flare that burst from the surface of the sun at 4:55 p.m. EST (2155 GMT) on Sunday (Dec. 31). It is the most powerful flare that has happened on the sun during the current solar cycle, solar cycle 25, which began in Dec. 2019. In fact, the flare that ended 2023 with a bang is the largest that has been observed since Sept. 10, 2017, according to the Space Weather Prediction Center of the National Oceanic And Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).

I'm always amused by these comparisons articles like to make. "Largest that has been observed since 2017". We're approaching solar maximum so the flares will be the largest in the cycle. The solar cycle is ~11 years so the last maximum was in the early 2010s, and the last minimum was in the late 2010s. "This solar flare at near maximum was bigger than the ones at the minimum" has substantially less punch.

Storms like this have the capability to cause weak fluctuations in power grids and could have minor impacts on satellite operations. In addition to this, G1 geomagnetic storms can give rise to striking auroras, beautiful light shows seen over Earth, usually at higher latitudes.

In 2003, during the last solar maximum — the peak of the sun's activity during the solar cycle 24  — an X45 flare was seen erupting from the sun, the most powerful solar flare ever measured. 

A powerful X-class flare like the one seen on New Year's Eve has the potential for long-lasting radiation storms, which can damage satellites, including GPS, and affect aircraft flying near the poles of Earth, even giving passengers on these flights small radiation doses. X flares also have the potential to cause worldwide blackouts, if conditions were just right.

The Hill:

In an update Sunday evening, NOAA’s Space Weather Prediction Center (SWPC) released an image of the flare, which appeared as a large, glowing spot on the sun. You can see that image below. 

Image reproduced from Original caption: An X5 solar flare detected by NOAA’s Space Weather Prediction Center on December 31, 2023. (NOAA SWPC; cropped)

At an X5, Sunday’s flare was much smaller than the flare recorded in 2003. It was, however, the strongest since September 2017, when an X8.2 flare was detected, according to the SWPC. This flare also supersedes an X2.8 solar flare reported in the same region of the sun on December 14. At the time, the SWPC reported that flare was “likely one of the largest solar radio events ever recorded.”

Possible effects:

The SWPC said those using high-frequency radio signals (like emergency managers) may notice a “temporary degradation or complete loss of signal on much of the sunlit side of Earth” as a result of Sunday’s solar flare.

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