Sun Spitting Out CMEs From Sunspot Bigger Than Earth

Earth continued to be hit by eruptions of solar radiation and plasma on Friday as part of a flurry of space weather activity this week.

The culprit behind many of the solar explosions is an enormous sunspot bigger than Earth known as AR3078, which has produced well over a dozen solar flares in the past 24 hours and hurled debris into space, according to solar activity news website spaceweather.com.

Sunspots are areas of the sun where magnetic fields are particularly strong; so strong that they prevent some heat from reaching the sun's surface, making them appear as dark patches.

When the tangled magnetic field lines near sunspots suddenly shift or reorganize, huge amounts of energy are released in the forms of flashes of radiation known as solar flares and clouds of plasma known as coronal mass ejections (CMEs).

The sun
A stock image shows an illustration of part of the sun. Due to intense magnetic activity, the sun often releases high-energy eruptions of radiation and plasma. vitacopS/Getty

These bursts of energy can cause geomagnetic storms on Earth—disruptions to our planet's magnetic field and atmosphere that have the potential to cause power grid issues, radio and navigation problems, and auroras in lower latitudes than usual.

Earlier this week, the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's (NOAA) Space Weather Prediction Center (SWPC) issued a notice in which it warned of an extensive geomagnetic storm this week that was expected to last until at least Friday.

The storms were predicted to reach up to G3 on the G1 to G5 scale of storm strength, with G5 being the most severe type. However, as of Thursday, the storms only reached a G2 or 'moderate' classification.

That same day the SWPC issued another notice in which it said disturbances would continue into Friday and Saturday, primarily at minor and moderate levels. As such, night-sky auroras should remain active but probably at higher latitudes than yesterday.

The SWPC had earlier predicted that auroras would be visible in northern U.S. states like northern Michigan and Maine; on Friday morning a new alert was issued stating that auroras might be visible at higher latitudes such as Canada and Alaska, going forward.

U.S. astronaut Bob Hines, who is currently aboard the International Space Station (ISS) took the following photographs of what he called "absolutely spectacular" auroras on August 18 driven by the recent solar activity, which he posted to Twitter.

Additional effects from the ongoing solar eruptions may include weak power grid fluctuations.

CME- and flare-related geomagnetic storms are relatively common and can occur on a weekly or monthly basis. They're particularly common when the sun is in an active phase.

Most of the time, CMEs are not strong enough to cause any effects that would be noticeable for the vast majority of people, though certain industries might want to be warned about them due to navigation or communication effects, for instance.

However, an extreme G5 storm might be strong enough to cause the complete collapse of grid systems, transformer damage, high-frequency radio blackouts for days in some areas, and auroras in low-latitude areas like Florida and southern Texas.