The last solar of 2013 via NASA


In essence, solar flares are powerful bursts of energy that explode out of the Sun. These events are caused by immense amounts of magnetic buildup beneath the solar surface, and when this built up energy is finally released, the ensuing explosion is amazingly powerful. For comparison, the average explosion from a solar flare is ten million times greater than the energy that is released from Earth’s most impressive volcanic eruptions; the flares are about the same as several million 100-megaton hydrogen bombs exploding at the same time.

Solar flares release energy in the form of radiation. This radiation is emitted across virtually the entire electromagnetic spectrum (from radio waves at the long wavelength, to gamma rays at the short wavelength). All of this energy storms (pun intended) out of the Sun at the speed of light (almost 300 million m/s).

That much energy streaming towards the Earth might sound rather startling. After all, it only takes 8 minutes for the energy from these events to reach us, and we have almost no warning of when to expect this kind of solar activity. However, we’ve nothing to fear. First, the Sun is really far away (93 million miles or 150 million km, to be precise). By the time that the radiation reaches us, much of it has dissipated across the inner solar system (so those of you in the northern hemisphere don’t need to worry about any unexpected winter sunburns).

Northern lights over the city of Calgary, Canada via Qyd on WikiMadia

That said, if they are intense enough, solar flares can disturb the atmosphere causing auroras (which are quite beautiful, really). They can also interfere with GPS and satellite communications. These interferences disrupt our signals for as long as the flare is ongoing,which can be anywhere from a few minutes to several hours. There are also some fears for any astronauts who are in space and are not protected by Earth’s atmosphere.

Nevertheless, the main point remains: For the average person living their life on planet Earth, solar storms are nothing to fear.

This is relatively relieving news, as the Sun bid farewell to 2013 with a couple of solar flares. The first flare was an M6.4 and peaked at 4:58 p.m EST on December 31. The second was categorized as an M9.9 and peaked at 1:52 p.m. EST on January 1. Imagery of the flares was captured by NASA’s Solar Dynamics Observatory, which keeps a constant watch on the sun, collecting new data every 12 seconds. Each wavelength represents material at a different temperature, which helps scientists understand how the flare (and the material it contains) is moved and heated through these events.

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