The Met Office will be keeping a close eye on the Sun over the coming days after a recent surge in its activity.
It’s fairly common for eruptions from the Sun (often called “space weather”) to occur, and these are usually associated with sunspots – dark areas of intense activity on the surface of the star.
The eruptions from these spots come in several different forms, but if the events are of sufficient strength and directed towards the Earth, they can all cause impacts on our modern-day technology. Impacts range from minor interference to communication networks to temporary disruption to electricity supply, satellites and GPS navigation.
Over the past few days a sunspot, identified by the number 1748, has been the cause of many solar eruptions which have already caused some minor impacts.
NASA image showing one of the recent solar flares ejecting from sunspot 1748
Some of the eruptions have been in the form of Coronal Mass Ejections (CMEs), which are plumes of electromagnetically charged gas (plasma). These have been focused away from Earth so far, but, as the sun rotates, there is a chance the sunspot could emit a CME in our direction.
Mark Gibbs, Head of Space Weather at the Met Office, said: “If a strong CME were to be directed at Earth it could have some disruptive impacts, but at the moment the probability of this happening appears to be low.
“We’ll be keeping a close watch on the situation, particularly from Friday evening onwards, to advise on anything that could cause disruption to help the UK minimise any potential impacts. Hopefully this event will pass without the majority of people noticing, but it’s important we monitor the risk.”
Since February 2011, the Met Office has been working with a range of partners, including the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), the British Geological Survey (BGS) and the UK Space Agency to develop a UK-based space weather forecasting service.
This monitors the Sun’s activity and then predicts how these changes are likely to affect the Earth’s environment. The Met Office Hazard Centre currently has forecasters trained in space weather forecasting, and awareness is being raised across different industry sectors to make them aware of their potential vulnerability and how we can help lessen the risks.
In the event of a CME, space weather monitoring can provide anything from 17 hours to 3 days advance warning – allowing vital time to prepare.
Solar activity is currently expected to be high as we are near the peak of an 11-year solar cycle, which sees the Sun’s activity increase and decrease over the period.
You can see more about space weather forecasting in our Youtube video.