Overview of the Solar Flare
NASA has captured images of one of the most powerful solar flares in years, an X2.2 class flare that erupted from the Sun on December 14, 2023 (1). The solar flare resulted in a radio blackout over the Atlantic Ocean (2), disrupting radio signals to aircraft in flight over this region for about an hour (3).
Solar flares occur when magnetic energy built up in the solar atmosphere is suddenly released, emitting radiation across the electromagnetic spectrum. Flares are classified by peak x-ray flux, with X2 class flares considered to be severe events that can cause radio blackouts on Earth. The last X2 class flare occurred in October 2017 (4), making this week’s flare the strongest in over 6 years.
|Solar Flare Class
|Peak X-Ray Flux
|2 x 10-4 W/m2
|Severe radio blackouts on sunlit side of Earth, radiation storms
|1 x 10-3 W/m2
|R3 radio blackout events, radiation storms
Table 1: Solar flare classification and potential effects
Radio Blackout from Flare
The X2.2 flare resulted in a wide-scale radio communications blackout over the Atlantic Ocean region that disrupted aviation communications in this area for about an hour (5). Radio blackouts occur when excess x-rays and extreme ultraviolet radiation from solar flares increase the density of the ionosphere, interfering with high frequency radio signals (6).
The flare disrupted important aeronautical high frequency radio communications, which aircraft use to contact air traffic control, forcing pilots to switch to alternate systems and bringing increased workload to pilots and air traffic managers (7).
Impacts and Next Steps
In addition to the wide-scale radio blackout, other potential impacts from the flare are possible in the coming days. The flare triggered a coronal mass ejection (CME) – a massive burst of solar plasma and magnetic fields – that is expected to reach Earth on December 17th (8). When CME plasma clouds reach Earth, they can spark geomagnetic storms that have the potential to disrupt satellites, communications networks, power grids and more (9).
The increased atmospheric activity could also make the Northern Lights visible further south than normal if cloud cover conditions permit viewing (10).
NOAA’s Space Weather Prediction Center has issued a geomagnetic storm watch for December 17th and 18th due to anticipated impacts from this CME. Storm conditions have the potential to reach strong G3 levels, which could spur fluctuations in power grids and satellite navigation distortions (11). Scientists will be monitoring inbound plasma cloud speed and orientation to better predict storm impacts.
Overall this solar flare and resulting CME represent the most significant space weather event in over 6 years. While potentially impactful, scientists emphasize that events like this demonstrate the value of space weather monitoring and prediction capabilities (12). Advanced warning allows potentially affected industries to take protective measures as needed.
NASA has captured rare imagery of an intense X2.2 solar flare – the strongest since 2017 – using specialized solar observatories (13). In addition to scientific significance, the event produced tangible space weather effects, including a wide-scale radio communications blackout over the Atlantic Ocean region. Additional possible impacts like geomagnetic storms and expanded aurora visibility are forthcoming later this week as the associated coronal mass ejections reaches Earth.
Scientists emphasize this solar flare demonstrates the power of ongoing efforts to monitor space weather and issue predictive warnings that help sensitive industries take appropriate protective measures (14). While intense, the X2.2 flare exemplifies why space weather cannot be ignored and why updated forecasting capabilities are so vital.
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