The Sun Is Getting Fired Up—and It's Way Beyond What Experts Predicted

With several solar flares and coronal mass ejections soaring out into space, the sun has had an active few months as the current solar cycle gathers momentum.

This solar cycle, Solar Cycle 25, is exceeding expectations in terms of activity, as it was initially forecast in 2019 that Solar Cycle 25 would have a similar activity level to that of the previous cycle.

However, Solar Cycle 25 has now outperformed the official forecast for over 24 consecutive months, with sunspot numbers already approaching those seen during the maximum of the previous cycle.

solar flare from sun
Stock image of a solar flare coming from the sun. As solar cycle 25 ramps up, solar flares and CMEs will increase in frequency. iStock / Getty Images Plus

The average sunspot numbers for January and February 2023 were some of the highest for around 10 years, according to NOAA data, with January seeing 143 sunspots, while February had 110. The previous highest-scoring month was during the peak of the previous cycle, Solar Cycle 24, with 146 sunspots occurring in February 2014.

The solar cycle follows 11-year fluctuations of activity, increasing towards the solar maximum in the middle of each cycle. The last solar minimum was in 2019, with the next solar maximum forecast for 2025. Solar Cycle 25 is so-called because it is the 25th cycle since records began in 1755.

These increased sunspot levels have led to higher frequencies of solar activity, such as solar flares and coronal mass ejections (CMEs), which have lit up the night sky with spectacular aurora as far south as France, and caused several geomagnetic storm-triggered radio blackouts in the past week alone.

When the twisted magnetic fields of sunspots suddenly realign, this can cause the sun to release huge amounts of electromagnetic radiation in the form of solar flares, and also spew out vast clouds of solar plasma as CMEs. These solar phenomena then react with the chemicals in our atmosphere, leading to a kaleidoscope of colors being seen in the night sky in the form of the Northern and Southern lights, as were seen across the world on Tuesday as a result of two massive CMEs released on February 24 and 25.

"The CME causes the Earth's magnetic field to move and reconfigure rapidly, and can also inject energetic particles into the Earth's atmosphere. These particles plunge towards the poles, and collide with molecules in the atmosphere, causing light of different colors depending on which molecules are hit," Huw Morgan, head of the Solar Physics group at Aberystwyth University in the U.K., told Newsweek.

Much of the light show seen this week was more red-colored than the usual greens. This is because many of the places that saw the lights were further towards the equator than usual, and therefore saw higher sections of the aurora.

"Although most people think of auroras as green, usually the higher parts are red. So if seen from far away, usually there is red above the green, but often not as bright as the green," Martin Connors, a professor of space science and physics at Athabasca University in Canada, told Newsweek.

"Auroras are caused by electrons coming from space and are much like old-fashioned fluorescent lamps, which also have high-voltage electrons in them. Depending on the voltage on the electrons, various colors of auroras are dominant, but saying why the electrons may have had a different voltage is hard."

On February 28, the sun spat out an M8.6-class flare, released by a sunspot region, leading to brief radio blackouts across the U.S. and Latin America.

"The solar wind plasma carries the Sun's magnetic field away with it; we call this the "interplanetary magnetic field" (IMF)," Brett Carter, an associate professor in space science at RMIT University in Australia, told Newsweek.

"In essence, the Earth's magnetic field acts as a shield that prevents the solar wind entering the magnetosphere, but if the orientation of the solar wind magnetic field is opposite to the Earth's, the magnetic field effectively "opens up" (through a process called "magnetic reconnection") and allows the solar wind plasma right into the magnetosphere, kicking off a series of magnetosphere and ionosphere current systems that can be detrimental for large-scale power grid infrastructure."

As the sun continues to approach its next maximum, due around 2025, its activity is expected to further increase, bringing with it more solar flares and CMEs.

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