Solar flares vs. coronal mass ejections: Which one creates auroras?

By Oliver Townsend Jun 4, 2024
Solar flares vs. coronal mass ejections: Here's which once gives us the northern lights.jpegOrginal image from:

Solar flares and coronal mass ejections are natural phenomena that occur in our solar system, often captivating our attention with their spectacular displays of light and energy. But what exactly are the differences between these two events, and how do they impact life on Earth? Let’s delve into the world of space weather and explore the fascinating dynamics of solar flares and coronal mass ejections.

Understanding Coronal Mass Ejections

Coronal mass ejections (CMEs) are slow-moving expulsions of plasma and magnetic fields from the sun’s atmosphere, known as the corona. While they are often celebrated for the mesmerizing aurora borealis they create, CMEs can also pose risks to our technological infrastructure. These massive bursts of energy have been known to disrupt power grids, telecommunication networks, and satellites, exposing astronauts to dangerous levels of radiation.

One key difference between CMEs and solar flares is the speed at which they travel. A CME can reach speeds of up to 1,900 miles per second, taking anywhere from 15 to 18 hours to reach Earth. However, some CMEs move at a slower pace of 155 miles per second, requiring several days to impact our planet. Despite the potential risks they pose, CMEs also offer us the breathtaking beauty of the aurora borealis, visible even in regions far from the North Pole.

Exploring Solar Flares

Unlike the gradual movement of CMEs, solar flares are intense bursts of radiation associated with sunspots that release magnetic energy into space. These eruptions from the sun can last anywhere from several minutes to hours, sending energy, light, and particles throughout the solar system. While solar flares can sometimes trigger geomagnetic storms on Earth, they also provide valuable insights into the sun’s magnetic activity and our solar cycle.

The frequency of solar flares varies based on their size, with smaller flares erupting more frequently than larger ones. As we approach the peak of Solar Cycle 25, which began in January and extends through October, we can expect to see an increase in solar activity and the occurrence of more solar flares. This 11-year cycle of solar activity influences the appearance of sunspots on the solar surface, impacting the frequency and intensity of solar flares we experience.

Anticipating the Northern Lights

While the recent CME may not offer Tennesseans a chance to witness the aurora borealis this week, there is hope on the horizon. NASA scientists predict that the solar maximum, or the peak of solar activity, will occur in July 2025, leading to stronger and more frequent displays of the northern lights. As we look towards the future, the magic of the aurora borealis serves as a reminder of the interconnectedness of our planet with the vast cosmic forces at play in our solar system.

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