YOUR WEEKLY DOSE OF WOWZERS AND WONDER FROM THE NATURAL WORLD
While many things make life on Earth possible, the sun is definitely near the top of that list.
But when you look up at that bright ball of fire in the sky, you don’t see so many of the sun’s Wowzerful features — including today’s featured topic: solar flares.
A solar flare is defined as a sudden brightening observed over the sun’s surface.
So what does that mean exactly? To understand, we have to look at what the sun is. It’s far more than just some giant ball of light in the sky.
The sun is essentially a massive, long-lasting explosion, though it’s not never-ending.
Most stars eventually die, but this can take hundreds of thousands or even millions of years. So there’s little chance we, as humans alive on Earth today, need to worry about it.
But the sun also isn’t the smooth orb, you see when you glance up to the sky with your naked eye.
Instead, it’s a continuous chain of explosions and eruptions with swirling, rolling waves of energy that are always changing shape.
Solar flares (sometimes also called solar limbs) occur when the sun’s surface expels energy.
But this release is just the beginning of a solar flare’s journey.
Sometimes, solar flares cause coronal mass ejections, or CMEs. These are the spectacular photos you sometimes see with arcs, plumes, or jets coming from the surface of the sun.
These events send waves of energy, radiation, ions, and other tiny particles flying across space at more than 1,000 km (620 mi)per second!
They’re moving so fast that they reach our planet in just a couple of days!
Thankfully, the majority of the most harmful parts of solar flares never reach us, and are instead filtered out in the ionosphere or our planet’s magnetic field.
This is actually the cause behind another Wowzerful event — the Northern Lights or aurora borealis.
But when they do reach the surface, weird things can happen. For example, electromagnetic pulses can cause electronic devices to malfunction, and some forms of UV rays are thought to cause cancer.
The next time you go outside, take a quick peek at the sun and think about how all the invisible energy flying through space makes every Wowzerful thing we do possible.
Solar flares tend to increase and decrease in frequency based on an 11-year solar cycle.
During the 11-year solar cycle peak, the sun can produce up to 100 solar flares a week!
Solar flares were first discovered and documented by Richard Christopher Carrington and Richard Hodgson in 1859!
Even the flares on the sun are hot, hot, hot! They can reach several million kelvin. How hot is that? The hottest day ever recorded on Earth was just shy of 330 kelvin.
The most powerful solar flare in modern history occurred on November 4, 2003. Experts told NASA that the energy expelled in that single flare could have powered every electronic device on earth for more than 340,000 years!
Check out how solar flares happen, big flares in history, and what we can do to avoid their damaging effects in this amazing animation.