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Did recent solar activity contribute to Thursday's widespread cellphone outage?

Digital Brief: February 23, 2024 (AM)
Digital Brief: February 23, 2024 (AM) 02:48

PHILADELPHIA (CBS) - The sun has been busy lately, with solar flares and solar winds directed at Earth.

Recently, a giant sunspot two times wider than our planet has developed on the sun's surface. While sunspots are common, this one is much larger than most.

Tagged with the name AR 3590, this sunspot has produced three strong X-class solar flares in the past 24 hours. One of which was an X6.3, the strongest flare since 2017.

What is a solar flare and how are they classified?

Solar flares are intense bursts of electromagnetic radiation coming from the sun's surface, affecting radio waves, x-rays and gamma rays. They can reach temperatures above a million degrees, and their intensity is measured over five levels.

X-class flares are the strongest and can lead to worldwide radio blackouts. In the worst-case scenario, they can destroy technological infrastructure, satellites and dangerous radiation storms.

M-class flares can cause spotty radio blackouts with lower levels of radiation.

C-class flares are small and have little effect on Earth.

B-class flares are weak and have little effect on Earth

A-class flares are the weakest with little or no effect on Earth.

The sun goes through 11-year cycles of solar activity. There have been 25 solar cycles recorded in the past 275 years. Each cycle includes years of low activity with few solar flares and several years of peak activity with numerous solar flares.

Our current solar cycle No. 25 began in 2019 and is expected to end in 2030. It is off to a very active start and is expected to peak between November 2024 and March 2026.

There were 13 X-class flares in 2023 and five have already erupted since the start of 2024, with more than 10 months left this year.

Typically, but not always, a solar wind or CME (Coronal Mass Ejection) accompanies strong solar flares like the three X-class flares this week.

CMEs are clouds of magnetized plasma that can strike Earth's atmosphere and magnetic field, leading to geomagnetic storms that include colorful Aurora borealis displays in the night sky.

These CMEs can also cause interruptions of satellite communications and ham radios.

In case you are wondering, none of the X-class solar flares this week were accompanied by a CME or geomagnetic storm. They were not responsible for the widespread cellphone outages Thursday morning.

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