It’s hard to imagine a more powerful storm than Hurricane Harvey or Irma. But on Sept. 10, 2017, astronomers observed an X-class solar flare that dwarfed those Earthbound storms. It was the largest flair since at least 2008.
Solar flares are large explosions that occur on the sun. They send light, high-speed particles, and massive amounts of energy into space, which sometimes heads toward Earth. These flares are dangerous for satellites and astronauts (and occasionally passengers on planes near the poles), but not so much for those of us on the ground.
That’s because the Earth’s atmosphere blocks most of the harmful energy from reaching our planet’s surface.
Astronomers categorize solar flares into five categories: A, B, C, M, and X. Each category is 10 times as powerful as the previous one, meaning an X is 10 times as powerful as an M and 10,000 times as powerful as an A-class flare.
Larger X-class flares are what scientists worry will affect satellites and electric equipment. Even these giant solar flares can’t transmit radiation all the way to the Earth’s surface, but they can still affect signals in the airwaves.
As more of our daily life relies on electricity and satellites, we become more susceptible to the effects of solar flares.
An X-class flare can cause major abnormalities in GPS transmissions, which can cause GPS readings to be off by yards. Now, it might be annoying to miss a turn because of a solar flare disruption. However, for marine vessels or airplanes, these imprecise readings can be ever more costly.
Thankfully, NASA and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) keep a close eye on solar activity. This allows airline pilots and satellite companies to be aware of possible interference from powerful solar flares and to make the appropriate adjustments.
Unfortunately, shortwave radio operators don’t have many options for dealing with the effects of solar flares. If they’re on the sunlit side of the Earth during a large flare, their communication could degrade or black out for up to an hour because of the solar activity.
On the bright side (no pun intended), solar flares offer good nature watching.
They make Aurora Borealis more powerful and widespread. In fact, some areas in the lower 48 states of the U.S. reported views of the beautiful phenomenon after several flares that preceded the one on Sept. 10.
If you’re interested in observing the solar activity firsthand, go find your solar eclipse glasses. While you probably won’t catch a solar flare in action, you can see sunspots.
Sunspots are cooler regions of the sun that can be observed from Earth. Often, sunspots are created after a solar flare discharges from the sun. Smaller ones are about the size of Earth and larger ones can extend halfway across the visible side of the sun.
The professionals have solar flares under control, but you can still stay informed.
There’s not any precautions the average person needs to take. Satellite companies and NASA make appropriate adjustments to avoid danger caused from solar flares.
Still, it’s interesting to know about the massive storms happening in our solar system. Learning about and observing solar activity can help us appreciate how complex, large, and random our world is.