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Two consecutive solar flares send potential geomagnetic storm toward Earth

The solar maximum appears to have moved forward, causing more eruptive phenomena on our star and placing terrestrial communication systems on alert

Solar flare august 2023
The solar flare that occurred on August 5, visible on the right side of the Sun.NASA/SDO
Javier Salas

Two consecutive powerful solar flares have affected terrestrial communications and provided another fresh signal that the peak of our star’s activity is approaching. The U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s (NOAA) Space Weather Prediction Center (SWPC) explained that these flare “likely caused the degradation or total loss of communications” in the North American region, which at the time was facing the Sun.

At midnight on Saturday night into Sunday, NASA detected a “strong” flare that was classified as type X, the most severe, which it imaged through its Solar Dynamics Observatory. This flare was compounded when two powerful coronal mass ejections merged as they detached from the Sun, as reported by SpaceWeather, resulting in an even more powerful phenomenon. A new model from the SWPC shows that the second, faster ejection outpaced and cannibalized the first, potentially turning the sum of the two into a geomagnetic storm that was forecast to reach Earth on August 8.

On Monday August 7, NASA captured another strong solar flare. “The image shows a subset of extreme ultraviolet light that highlights the extremely hot material in flares,” the U.S. space agency said in a statement. Meanwhile, the NOAA has detailed that a flare affected the Earth in an event that “peaked at 20:46 UTC (4:46 pm EDT) on 7 Aug and likely caused HF radio communication degradation or completed loss on the sunlit side of Earth during the flare’s duration.”

North America and the Pacific were affected by the blackout, as it began around 20:37 UTC over the west coast of Mexico and ended at approximately 21:51 UTC over the east coast of Hawaii. According to the SWPC, the event was graded as R3, that is, a “strong blackout” on a scale from R1 (minor) to R5 (extreme).

This second flare is also of type X, and of similar strength to the previous one: X1.5 and X1.6, respectively. The categories depend on the amount of energy released: there are five, with X being the maximum. NASA explains that the additional number provides more information about its strength and can reach a maximum of 10.

In both cases, the flare emerged from the same sunspot, cataloged as region 3386. Although sunspots are not the same as flares, there is a relationship between the two solar phenomena. More sunspots mean “more activity and a higher probability of flares,” Consuelo Cid Tortuero, a senior scientist at the Spanish National Service of Space Meteorology, recently explained.

Solar flares are powerful bursts of energy, NASA explains, and can affect radio communications, power grids, navigation signals and pose risks to spacecraft and astronauts.

The phase known as the maximum of the solar peak was forecast to arrive in 2025, but these recent phenomena point to the solar maximum — denominated Solar Cycle 25 — coming in late 2023 or early 2024, which would be a “termination event,” according to specialists. The phenomenon occurs when an 11-year solar cycle ends abruptly, changing the star’s polarity, and begins again with greater intensity, causing geomagnetic storms that hit the Earth causing blackouts, but also spectacular aurora borealis in unexpected latitudes.

In June, the NOAA explained that the solar cycle had accelerated more quickly than scientists had predicted, producing more sunspots and flares than experts had forecast. As such, these solar events will continue to increase as our star approaches solar maximum. “Though we are seeing increased activity on the Sun, we expect this solar cycle to be average compared to solar cycles in the past century,” the NOAA said in a statement.

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