The sun has got its spot on, hip-hip-hip-oh-no!

by James Riley

Imagine having a giant spot moving across your face, making its way around the back of your head over a 27-day period. I’m sure most of us might start thinking about contacting the doctor (or even consider investing in some facial scrub).

As the spot comes closer to circumnavigating your face it explodes violently with a burst of radiation – now you’re worried. But this is far from over. On the morning of the 28th day you wake up and see the spot has made its way, from the rear, around to the front of your head again. You hold tight for another slow 27-day trip, hoping another explosion doesn’t come. Your hopes aren’t answered. Another massive magnetic explosion of radiation spews from the spot. After frantically grabbing inside your pocket for your mobile to call the doctor, you see that the screen is blank. The spot’s explosion has destroyed the electronics inside.

This isn’t a nice image, but it is close to what the sun has been experiencing early in 2014 with the emergence of a new sunspot AR11944. Sunspots are dark areas of the solar surface. They are cold, well, colder than the rest of the sun in any case. At around 4000c they are around 2000c less than the rest of the solar surface, giving them their dark characteristic. Sunspots have strong magnetic fields which cause massive solar flares and coronal mass ejection (CME) events, the most powerful explosions in the solar system.


(A giant sunspot appeared on Feb. 25, 2014, for its third trip across the face of the sun. This blend of two images from NASA’s Solar Dynamics Observatory shows the sunspot in visible light and an X-class flare observable in ultraviolet light. Image Credit: NASA/SDO/Goddard Space Flight Center)

As we used to have no telescopes monitoring the far side of the sun, it was hard to fully establish that the old sunspots which disappeared over the sun’s horizon were the same as the new ones emerging on the opposite side. This meant astronomers renamed the sunspot on each full navigation, even if the new emerging spot was thought to be the same as the old one.

The new sunspot which appeared on the 25th Feb 2014 has been labelled AR11944, it’s previously trip was labelled AR11967, and it was originally christened AR11990. And this multi-named sun-trotter hasn’t made its journey quietly. During its voyage it has released two of the strongest classes of solar flare which can be produced – the (incredibly Star Trek sounding) X-Class.

The regularity of these events raises questions over our technological infrastructure. High intensity solar flares don’t only cause the beautiful auroras which people flock to see, they can disrupt electronic systems, and we rely on an abundance of electronic systems every day. We are so dependent on electronic communications – from phones to pylons, computers to cars, submarines to satellites, and not forgetting the internet – if a massive solar flare wiped out a large chunk of our electronic communications, the world may very well come to a standstill.

This apocalyptic sun-ray isn’t just the spouting of hard-line conspiracy theorists. Research published in Space suggests that we have a 1 in 8 chance of experiencing a catastrophic solar mega-storm within the next decade.

The last huge event which we had, dubbed the Carrington Event, caused widespread damage to the telegraph system. Being the most widely depended upon communications system at the time, this was quite worrying. It was also reported that people awoke in Australia thinking it was morning, and others could read their newspapers by its light in New York.

If this kind of event happened today, it is no doubt that our infrastructure would suffer serious damages. Almost every communications channel we depend upon is based on electrical systems, and without developing solar flare resistant electronics, we place ourselves at risk of a communications breakdown. Is it time to have a rethink?

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