Occasionally, people see reports of large solar flares on the surface of the sun. The below photo provides an interesting look into the workings of the fiery, medium-sized star centered on our solar system. These flares are of interest to scientists for many reasons, some very practical and some very theoretical, but some effects of solar flares can affect your daily life.
What Are Solar Flares?
Solar flares are sudden, intense eruptions on the sun’s surface layer that show extreme brightness variation. These flares occur when magnetic energy builds up in the solar atmosphere and is quickly released. Solar flares extend out to the corona of the sun, the layer that is the outermost atmosphere that contains rarified gas. The radiation emitted from solar flares ranges from radio waves to optical emissions to x-rays and gamma rays. The energy released is thought to be 10 million times greater than a volcanic eruption. Even so, that amount of energy is less than 1/10th of the total energy emitted by the sun each second. The first solar flare was recorded in 1859 when Richard C. Carrington and Richard Hodgson independently observed a large, white-light flare.
Stages of A Solar Flare
Solar flares occur in 3 stages. In the 1st, the precursor stage, a release in magnetic energy begins. During the 2nd stage, called the impulsive stage, the sun’s surface releases an explosion of protons and electrons. Radio, x-ray, and gamma rays waves are released. In the 3rd stage, the decay stage, the rays begin to diminish through decay. The stages can last from a few seconds to an hour.
Why Do Solar Flares Occur?
Experts believe that solar flares are related to the magnetic field of the sun. Some theorize that when the magnetic fields point in opposite directions, they react strongly, producing these flares. The occurrence and frequency of solar flares coincide with the sun’s 11-year cycle. This cycle is a recurring pattern of magnetic activity that ebbs and flows over a period of 10.7 years. When the solar cycle is at the minimum, solar flares are small and rare. These flares gradually increase as the sun reaches its maximum over time. Experts see a correlation between the frequency of solar flares and the number of sunspots detected.
How Solar Flares Affect The Earth
The Earth’s magnetic field and atmosphere protect the planet from the harmful rays produced by solar flares. However, these emissions can cause disturbances in the upper atmosphere, called the ionosphere. They can disturb radio communications and increase the drag on Earth-orbiting satellites, reducing their lifespan. They can also disrupt global positioning system measurements. Large solar flares can produce increases in aurora in the Earth’s atmosphere for several days after a flare. Auroras are spectacular light patterns produced by charged particles within atmospheric molecules when flares produce solar winds that reach Earth. These occur at the high northern and southern latitudes. The most common ones known are the dancing “Northern Lights” seen in parts of Canada and Alaska.
Dangers of Solar Flares
Solar flares can disrupt the communications system on Earth. They can be especially dangerous for the astronauts and equipment in space when electronics systems malfunction or become damaged. Astronauts doing spacewalks must also worry about the cumulative exposure to radiation produced by solar flares. One type of solar flare, called a coronal mass ejection, can be powerful enough to disrupt electrical grids on Earth, causing expensive repairs and great inconvenience to homeowners and businesses.