The Sun erupted with a massive X1-class solar flare on Thursday, December 15th, producing the most powerful solar flare since 2017. The intense blast of radiation and plasma caused radio blackouts across the Earth and may lead to dazzling northern lights displays in some areas over the next few nights.
Massive Explosion on the Sun’s Surface
According to NASA’s Solar Dynamics Observatory, the solar flare peaked at 1:57 p.m. EST. It erupted from a large sunspot labeled AR3190, which is currently facing Earth.
The flare registered as X1 on the solar flare classification scale, which ranks flares from weakest (A & B class) to strongest (X class). X-class solar flares are the most intense categories, defined as flares emitting peak x-ray fluxes exceeding 10-3 Watts/m2.
This makes the X1 flare the most powerful eruption of the current solar cycle so far. It is over 10 times more powerful than the M5-class flares that occurred frequently over the past week from the same sunspot region.
Solar Flare Classification Scale
X Class: >10<sup>-3</sup> Watts/m<sup>2</sup> (most intense flares)
M Class: 10<sup>-5</sup> to 10<sup>-3</sup> Watts/m<sup>2</sup> (medium-intensity flares)
C Class: 10<sup>-7</sup> to 10<sup>-5</sup> Watts/m<sup>2</sup> (weakest flares)
Radio Blackouts and Communication Disruption
The increased X-ray and ultraviolet radiation from the major solar flare ionized parts of Earth’s upper atmosphere, causing a wide-spread radio blackout over the Atlantic Ocean and eastern North America.
The blackout disrupted high-frequency communications, impacting aviation operations and hindering radio contact with planes flying over these areas. Flights routes may need to be adjusted until the ionosphere settles, which could take hours to days.
Amateur radio operators and mariners also detected significant degradation and blackouts of HF bands due to the ionospheric disturbance.
Furthermore, the radiation blast may have harmed satellites orbiting near that region of space. Operators are assessing impacts to satellite systems now.
Potential Aurora Displays
The large amount of charged particles released by the solar storm, known as a coronal mass ejection (CME), may brush past Earth’s magnetic field over the next few days. This could lead to vibrant auroral displays (also known as the Northern and Southern Lights) at higher latitudes, including northern-tier U.S. states, Canada, Iceland, Norway, Scotland and New Zealand on December 16th-18th if the CME cloud arrives.
The visibility of potential light shows depends on if and when the CME passes Earth, as well as localized weather conditions during nighttime hours to observe any auroral development.
Ongoing Solar Storm Threats
The sunspot responsible for this X-class flare, AR3190, remains potent and could unleash additional intense solar flares toward Earth in the next week as it rotates across the Sun’s central meridian.
Forecasters note two other noticeable sunspots (AR3184 and AR3187) emerging as well that bear monitoring for eruptive potential. Each flare or coronal mass ejection originating from these magnetically-volatile regions on the Sun could drive further space weather effects at Earth.
The Space Weather Prediction Center (SWPC) has issued a geomagnetic storm watch for December 18th in anticipation of incoming solar storm activity. Continue monitoring local forecasts and updates for any impacts in your area.
While this solar flare and potential geomagnetic unrest may lead to beautiful aurora sightings, more powerful solar storms can present hazards to astronauts in space along with power grids and satellites we depend on here on Earth. Astronomers will be keeping a close watch on the Sun’s activity over the next several days to weeks amid one of the most active periods for solar flares we have witnessed in years.
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