Science Review of Storms on the Sun

Overview

Eruptions of light and other forms of radiation from the sun affect conditions on and near Planet Earth, causing geomagnetic storms, solar radiation storms, and radio blackouts.  Some types of “storms on the sun” include solar flares, coronal mass ejections, high-speed solar wind, and solar energetic particles.

Solar Flare

Solar flares come from the release of magnetic energy associated with sunspots.  We observe them as bright areas on the sun that can last anywhere from minutes to hours.  A solar flare releases energy from visible light throughout the spectrum, including x-rays and ultraviolet light.  They impact Earth when they occur on the side of the sun that faces us, because the energy-carrying photons travel in straight lines.

Coronal Mass Ejections

The outermost atmosphere of the sun is called the corona, shaped by strong magnetic fields.  If the fields are closed rather than open, parts of the confined solar atmosphere can suddenly erupt, releasing bubbles of gas and solar material in a violent explosion.  Tons of matter violently burst through space at millions of miles an hour, impacting anything in its path.  The cloud has to be facing Earth to affect the planet.

High-Speed Solar Wind

The solar wind is formed along magnetic fields that travel through the Solar system, from large, dark areas in the sun’s corona called “coronal holes.”  Open lines in the sun’s magnetic field allow particles to be more accelerated, creating a high-speed solar wind.  If the high-speed solar wind is formed near the equator of the sun, it is more likely to create shock waves that release more energetic particles.

Effects on the Earth

If the magnetosphere of the Earth is impacted by energy from any type of storm on the sun, it undergoes sudden and repeated change.  For the most part, the magnetosphere protects us from most particles the sun emits.  However, if that stream of magnetic particles is unusually strong or hits the magnetosphere southward, it can enter the atmosphere at the poles and weaken the magnetic field of the Earth (or any other planet it encounters).  Although the magnetic field goes back to its normal strength in a number of hours, during the time the magnetic field is interrupted, electrical and radio communications can be brought down.  For example, the electrical blackout that affected 6 million people in 1989 was caused by a geomagnetic storm, and radio disruptions often affect aircraft communications.

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