Monday, February 21, 2011

X-Class Flares, Solar Maximum, And Cycle 24

On Tuesday I wrote the post: First X-flare of the New Solar Cycle. Thomas, a reader wrote the following comment:
What I would like to see is a history of X-class flares. How they they are related to solar activity maximum progression. Well Cycle 24 had somewhat of a slow start. Now the question of course is, how quickly will it increase in terms of activity to still somehow reach maximum in 2012. That is hwy it would be interesting to correlated the sun activity of the coming month with historical progression of previous cycles. I would assume that cycle 24 will present us with unprecedented anomalies. What's your best guess.. ?
Instead of posting a lengthy comment at the post, I will attempt to answer his questions here.

First of all, I am NOT an Astronomer.  Neither professional nor amateur.  I can point out stars and Constellations in the sky, look through a telescope to see the Rings of Saturn or Jupiter, and I try to follow the subject through documentaries and on-line sights such as Space Weather.  For me to answer Thomas' questions meant researching the subject.  A project that I have enjoyed doing.

X-Flares: What are they?  Are they harmful?  Do they contribute to Global Warming? Are they related to the X-Men or X-Files?

To understand what a Solar Flare is, let alone an X-Flare, one first must understand that the Sun isn't sedentary.  The Sun has changes in the amount of radiation emitted by the Sun and in its spectral distribution over years to millennia. These variations have periodic components, the main one being the approximately 11-year solar cycle (or sunspot cycle). The changes also have aperiodic fluctuations. In other words it has Quakes, Explosions of energy, Spots on its surface and will Cut the cheese.  In fact without this activity, there would be no solar radiation, no solar heat, no life on Planet Earth either.  For we need the Sun to survive.

From Wikipedia:
A solar flare is a large explosion in the Sun's atmosphere that can release as much as 6 × 1025 joules of energy[1] (about a sixth of the total energy output of the Sun each second). The term is also used to refer to similar phenomena in other stars, where the term stellar flare applies.

Solar flares affect all layers of the solar atmosphere (photosphere, chromosphere, and corona), heating plasma to tens of millions of kelvins and accelerating electrons, protons, and heavier ions to near the speed of light. They produce radiation across the electromagnetic spectrum at all wavelengths, from radio waves to gamma rays. Most flares occur in active regions around sunspots, where intense magnetic fields penetrate the photosphere to link the corona to the solar interior. Flares are powered by the sudden (timescales of minutes to tens of minutes) release of magnetic energy stored in the corona. If a solar flare is exceptionally powerful, it can cause coronal mass ejections.

X-rays and UV radiation emitted by solar flares can affect Earth's ionosphere and disrupt long-range radio communications. Direct radio emission at decimetric wavelengths may disturb operation of radars and other devices operating at these frequencies.

Solar flares were first observed on the Sun by Richard Christopher Carrington and independently by Richard Hodgson in 1859 as localized visible brightenings of small areas within a sunspot group. Stellar flares have also been observed on a variety of other stars.

The frequency of occurrence of solar flares varies, from several per day when the Sun is particularly "active" to less than one every week when the Sun is "quiet". Large flares are less frequent than smaller ones. Solar activity varies with an 11-year cycle (the solar cycle). At the peak of the cycle there are typically more sunspots on the Sun, and hence more solar flares.
Solar Flares are classified thusly:  A, B, C, M or X according to the peak flux (in watts per square meter, W/m2) of 100 to 800 picometer X-rays near Earth, as measured on the GOES spacecraft. Each class has a peak flux ten times greater than the preceding one, with X class flares having a peak flux of order 10−4 W/m2. Within a class there is a linear scale from 1 to 9, so an X2 flare is twice as powerful as an X1 flare, and is four times more powerful than an M5 flare. The more powerful M and X class flares are often associated with a variety of effects on the near-Earth space environment. Although the GOES classification is commonly used to indicate the size of a flare, it is only one measure.

This extended logarithmic classification is necessary because the total energies of flares range over many orders of magnitude, following a uniform distribution with flare frequency roughly proportional to the inverse of the total energy. Stellar flares and earthquakes show similar power-law distributions.

In layman's terms:  Type A flares are the weakest.  Type X flare the strongest.

Within the last few weeks a few X-flares have been seen emitting from the Sun.  These flares cause havoc with satellites, geomagnetic storms, even knock out all communications, electric tranformers and the internet and electronic circuitry including computers.

There is no proof that Solar Flares contribute to Global Warming, but the radical environmentalists will try to claim it does.  But Solar activity does have an effect on weather patterns, it is part of the natural cycle of the  the Planet Earth. Nor does the X-Men or X-Files have a connection to X-Flares.
I was able to find a timeline of solar flares here. I don't know how accurate it is.  I hope it suffices.

Solar Cycle 24:
Solar Cycle 24 is the 24th solar cycle since 1755, when recording of solar sunspot activity began. It is the current solar cycle, and began on 8 January 2008. Cycle continues to fall below predictions and is currently exhibiting 50% lower sunspot activity than predicted in May 2009.

Solar Cycle 24 will peak in May 2013 with 90 sunspots, which would be the fewest since solar cycle 16.

Currently the number of sunspots is approximately 50% below the latest predictions and if this trend continues, Solar Cycle 24 may represent the weakest cycle ever recorded.

Michio Kaku
According to NASA, the intensity of geomagnetic storms during Solar Cycle 24 may be elevated in some area where the Earth's magnetic field is weaker than was expected. This fact was discovered by the THEMIS spacecraft in 2008. A 20-fold increase in particle counts that penetrate the Earth's magnetic field may be expected.

Astrophysicist Michio Kaku has taken advantage of the media focus on the 2012 phenomenon to draw attention to the need to develop strategies for coping with the terrestrial damage that solar activity can inflict. He asserts that governments should ensure the integrity of electrical infrastructures, so as to prevent a recurrence of disruption akin to that caused by the solar storm of 1859.

While science doesn't fully understand what is causing the cycle to act so erratically, we have to understand that it has only been since the invention of telescopes, and the placing of solar satellites that we have had any real knowledge of solar activity. This  cycle's peak has been changed from 2012 to 2013. It might change again.  I have no clue to that happening.

As of today there has been an increase of sunspot activity.  I surmise that this will now increase into greater numbers of both sunspots and solar flares culminating with a maximum of sunspot activity in April-May 2013.

Expect solar flares to hit the Earth and our Satellites with the ability to destroy the satellites and knock out transformers and electrical devices.  Locally in a predetermine area (Best Case), but if a large flare hits world-wide it could cause a world-wide blackout lasting for at least a decade to repair (Worst Case).

To follow the developments of Cycle 24 you can use the following sites:

Space Weather
Solar Cycle 24

Good Viewing!!!


SnoopyTheGoon said...

You are NOT an Astronomer?

And I thought all this years...

Nah ;-)

Anyway, I guess we'll survive the flares somehow.

WomanHonorThyself said...

I love the contellations too!