When will the next big solar storm hit Earth? New discoveries about the sun’s magnetic field can improve predictions

New research indicates that the Sun’s magnetic field originates much closer to the surface than previously thought, a finding that could help predict periods of extreme solar storms like the one struck the earth earlier this month.

It appears that the magnetic field originates 20,000 miles below the surface of the sun. Previous calculations placed the roots of this process more than 210,000 kilometers away, an international team reported on Wednesday.

The sun’s intense magnetic energy is the source of solar flares and bursts of plasma known as coronal mass ejections. When focused on the Earth, they can create beautiful auroras but also disrupt power and communication.

“We still don’t understand the Sun well enough to make accurate predictions” of space weather, lead author Geoffrey Vasil of the University of Edinburgh said in an email.

The latest findings published in the journal Nature “will be an important step toward finally solving” this mysterious process known as solar dynamo, added co-author Daniel Lecoanet of Northwestern University.

This image, from NASA’s Solar Dynamics Observatory, shows a solar flare, right, on May 14, 2024, captured in the extreme ultraviolet light portion of the spectrum, colored in red and yellow.

/AP


Galileo was one of the first astronomers to turn a telescope toward the sky and study sunspots in the early 17th century. Solar flares and coronal mass ejections often occur near sunspots, dark spots the size of Earth that are located near the most intense parts of the sun’s shifting magnetic field.

Vasil and his team developed new models of the interaction between the Sun’s magnetic field and the plasma flow, which varies at different latitudes over an eleven-year cycle. They fed their calculations into a NASA supercomputer in Northern California — the same computer used in the 2015 film “The Martian” to verify the best flight path to save the main character. The results suggested a shallow magnetic field and additional research is needed to confirm this.

The modeling was “greatly simplified,” said Ellen Zweibel of the University of Wisconsin-Madison, who was not part of the team, in an accompanying editorial.

The results are intriguing and “sure to inspire future studies,” Zweibel said.

Preparing for a ‘potentially much more dangerous’ storm

The new knowledge should improve long-term solar forecasts, allowing scientists to better predict the strength of our star’s future cycles. The sun is approaching its peak level of activity in the current 11-year cycle, hence the recent flare-ups.

Strong solar flares and eruptions of billions of tons of plasma earlier this month caused severe solar storms that produced auroras in unexpected places. Last week the sun spit out largest solar flare in almost twenty yearsbut it stayed away from Earth.

GOES-16 Solar Ultraviolet Imager shows the Sun on May 14, 2024, around the time it emitted its strongest solar flare yet in the solar cycle.

NOAA Space Weather Prediction Center


That happened just days after an “extreme” geomagnetic G5 storm hit Earth after NOAA’s Space Weather Prediction Center warned of the possibility of a severe impact.

A better understanding of the sun could ensure that “we are prepared for the next storm – potentially much more dangerous – on Earth,” Lecoanet said.

Earth is currently in solar cycle 25, which began in 2020. The last cycle had an average length of 11 years and was the weakest solar cycle in a century, according to the National Weather Service. Although the current cycle is predicted to be quite weak and similar to previous ones, NOAA officials saw a “steady increase in sunspot activity” from the start.

Li Cohen contributed to this report.

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