Sun Spots and Solar Flares – Keeping an Eye on the Sky

science, northern lights, sun spots, sun

What could be more magical and surreal than being able to see the results of heightened activity in and around the sun, from the earth? Solar phenomena have captured the wonder, reverence and imagination of countless civilizations. However, what appears to be a magical play of colors in the sky such as the Northern Lights, is actually a reminder of what many paleontologists believe wiped out the mighty dinosaurs. The Northern Lights are an electromagnetic phenomenon seen on Earth caused by the solar eruptions originating from the sun.

This beautiful and glowing hot ball of gas gets its energy from the fusion of hydrogen atoms. The fusion reaction is a chain process that produces tremendous amounts of energy and heat. It is now understood that the sun does not have a uniform temperature all over it. The surface is in fact cooler than the area around it. Solar activity has a direct link to changes in the Earth’s atmosphere. During this cycle, the sun’s poles reverse, thereby affecting the Earth’s terrestrial magnetic field as well. The ethereal Northern Lights as mentioned above for example, when understood scientifically are the Earth’s interplanetary magnetic field being breached by solar particles resulting from flares.

When viewed through infra-red telescopes, sun spots are the darkest areas on the sun’s surface. This is because they are believed to be at least 1,500 to 2,000 degrees cooler than the sun’s blazing core temperature. Interestingly, these spots are constantly on the move and also grow and shrink in size. Scientists and astronomers who keep a reassuringly vigilant eye on the sky usually sit up and take note when sun spots suddenly grow big and solar flares inch closer to the Earth. Solar flares are spots which appear brighter than the surrounding surface. The overall flux in the appearance of solar flares and sun spots is a part of an 11 year cycle. During each solar cycle, the brightest phase is called the Solar Maximum and in the current cycle, the Solar Maximum occurred on January 15, 2014.

In the Northern hemispheres, the Northern Lights this month were scintillating, brighter and displayed vibrant colors ranging from pink and green to bluish purple waves. While they put on quite an extra-terrestrial show, this sudden shift in the color spectrum towards the ultra-violent zone signals a warning to space scientists. High-radiation solar flares originating from Coronal Mass Ejections fling hazardous particles towards the inner planets and NASA’s indigenous solar weather satellites have detected one of these flares to be peaking rather dangerously and rapidly.

According to the US Meteorological Department, the recurrence of solar eruptions could have a profound impact on the magnetic fields of the earth resulting in the expansion of the Northern Lights further down the hemisphere. So it comes as no surprise that the lights which are sometimes called the Dance of the Spirits, that were seen earlier this month, were the brightest recorded in 400 years. They were visible in parts of Boston and New York and eastward into Europe.

It is well worth keeping a sharp eye on any sun activity, be it solar flares, sun spots, solar storms or anything else. In addition to the benevolent element of stunning sky spectacles, they can also result in dramatically changed weather and distorted magnetic fields. The effects of this can range from the mundane such as car navigation going off, to the more serious such as airlines going off the grid and even delayed rocket launches.

By Grace Stephen


Los Angeles Times

National Geographic

Stroud News and Journal

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