Study captures life cycle of solar flares, but how do flares affect us on Earth?
By Edsel Cook // Apr 27, 2019

Researchers are taking another big step toward understanding the behavior of the sun and the effects of its solar weather on Earth. They recently released the most accurate animated depiction of a solar flare going through its entire life cycle.


The short movie covers a hypothetical flare's existence from its formation to its conclusion. Its use of distinct colors show how the temperatures inside the flare shifted as time passed. It also makes the movement of the magnetic field lines very evident to the viewer, who gets to witness every single surge of electromagnetic energy until the last bright burst of the solar phenomenon dies away.

In addition to presenting a splendid light show for the human eye, the 3D animation is taken from a newly developed computer model that will help solar weather researchers predict the onset and duration of solar flares. The refined version of the model will be able to whip up realistic simulations of a flare as it is happening in real time. (Related: Climate change on Earth is “significantly” impacted by solar activity, profound new study confirms.)

A computer model that predicts the life and behavior of a solar flare

A solar flare is the most energetic cosmic activity that takes place on the sun and throughout the solar system. This spectacular phenomenon begins life near a sunspot, an area on the surface of the sun that is cooler and darker than the rest of the plasma comprising the star.

Powerful magnetic forces are responsible for the darker appearance and characteristics of sunspots. The energy from these forces accumulates over time until it can no longer be restrained. When it breaks free, the energy creates a solar flare, a tendril of magnetic force that leaps from the surface of the sun before looping back down.

Researchers from the National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR) in Boulder, Colorado seek to create a computer model of a solar flare from start to finish. They calculate the magnetic forces in all of the sections of the sun that contribute to a flare.

Their model includes data from locations that are found above the surface of the sun, deep within the star, and within its corona. The researchers can induce solar flares in the model by adjusting the various factors in the sun.

"Our model was able to capture the entire process, from the buildup of energy to emergence at the surface to rising into the corona, energizing the corona, and then getting to the point when the energy is released in a solar flare," explained NCAR researcher Matthias Rempei, one of the two authors of the scientific paper.

Solar flares can disrupt electric and electronic systems all across Earth

The sun is around 93 million miles (149 million kilometers) away from Earth. However, its solar flares can reach across that distance and cause considerable havoc on our planet.

Sometimes, the sun undergoes a solar storm that unleashes indescribably huge amounts of magnetic energy in the direction of Earth. Solar flares are some of the accompaniments to this terrifying space weather.

The solar storm will cause the geomagnetic field of the Earth to go haywire. The resulting surges of electromagnetic energy will disrupt, damage, or even destroy modern communication networks, electrical power grids, and the satellites orbiting the planet.

Humans are not the only ones who will be greatly affected by a solar flare or a solar storm. Many animals find their way across the planet using the magnetic field of the Earth. Whales and other such animals will lose their ability to navigate through their surroundings if the Earth's magnetic field goes berserk during a flare event.

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