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The sun has been displaying significant sunspot activity, with two particular sunspots recently merging and becoming highly active.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) has escalated a geomagnetic solar storm watch from level 3 (“moderate”) to level 4 (“severe”) as of Thursday. This escalation comes in response to multiple solar flares projected to converge as they approach Earth. The intensified activity could produce dazzling auroras across the northern skies, but it also poses risks including disruptions to GPS navigation, satellite communications, and potential blackouts of high-frequency radio transmissions.

NOAA has noted that watches of this severity are exceedingly uncommon, labeling the current situation as “an unusual event.” This marks the first “severe” Geomagnetic Storm Watch issued since January 2005.

In the last 24 hours, two significant sunspots have coalesced and emitted at least two X-class (the largest category) and several M-class (the second largest category) solar flares. These events have propelled charged and superheated plasma—a phenomenon known as a coronal mass ejection (CME)—to travel through space at high speeds while expanding. According to NOAA, the newly formed sunspot is now 16 times the diameter of Earth.

Another sunspot has been actively emitting powerful coronal mass ejections (CMEs) this week. NOAA predicts that a total of five CMEs will make a glancing contact with Earth from midday Friday through Sunday.

The Space Weather Prediction Center notes that these two sunspot clusters are magnetically complex and significantly larger than Earth. Known collectively as RGN 3664, these clusters have been the source of frequent M-class flares, which are minor to moderate in intensity. “RGN 3664 continues to grow and increase in magnetic complexity and has evolved into a higher threat of increased solar flare risk,” the center reported.

How Flares Can Trigger Geomagnetic Storms

“Flares are like the sun brightening; we see the radiation, and that’s akin to the muzzle flash,” Professor Peter Becker of George Mason University explained in an interview. “The coronal mass ejection (CME) follows like a cannon shot. While the flare itself is just the initial bright flash, the subsequent CME can travel in unpredictable directions through space. However, we can often predict when they are Earth-bound, giving us about 18 to 24 hours of warning before these particles reach Earth and begin affecting the Earth’s magnetic field.”

Potential Impacts of the Geomagnetic Storm

NOAA has issued warnings about the potential for widespread disruptions due to the geomagnetic storm. These include wide-area blackouts of high-frequency radio communications for several hours. The storm could also cause widespread voltage irregularities in power systems, which may trigger false alarms on security devices, impact the orientation capabilities of low earth orbit satellites, and cause significant errors and loss-of-lock in GPS systems.

The Northern Lights, or aurora borealis, might be visible as far south as northern California, Oklahoma, Alabama, and Virginia due to the intensity of the storm. Such geomagnetic conditions typically occur around 60 days within any given 11-year solar cycle.

Historical Context and Future Predictions

NOAA indicates that only three severe geomagnetic storms have been observed since the current solar cycle began in December 2019. “The last severe geomagnetic storm occurred on March 23, 2024, and the most extreme, known as the Halloween Storms, occurred in October 2003,” stated the SWPC. The 2003 storm caused power outages in Sweden and damaged transformers in South Africa.

X-class solar flares, the most intense type of flares, can produce as much energy as 1 billion atomic bombs, according to NASA. M-class flares, though less powerful, can still cause minor radiation storms and pose risks to astronauts.

Evidence from tree rings and ice cores suggests that Earth has experienced much larger solar superstorms in the past. The great Carrington Event of 1859 is considered the most significant solar storm in recent Earth history, with effects observed worldwide.

NOAA forecasts that the current 11-year solar cycle will likely peak sometime in 2024 or early 2025. As a result, solar activity is expected to remain high for several months or even years, continuing to pose a risk of significant solar and geomagnetic events.

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