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Despite weak 'Solar Mini-Max', our Sun unleashes a triple blast of X-class flares

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Scott Sutherland
Meteorologist, theweathernetwork.com

Tuesday, June 10, 2014, 12:15 - Updated at 12:15 p.m., June 11: After months of waiting, scientists watching the activity of our Sun have finally seen it reach the latest Solar Maximum, and it's a rather unusually one - one of the weakest maximums ever recorded. A 'Solar Mini-Max' according to the video above, from Science@NASA. However, despite the fact that the number of sunspots and solar flares has been very low this maximum, their power has not diminished at all, as evidenced by the three massive solar flares detected over the past two days.

At 7:42 a.m. ET Tuesday, a powerful eruption blasted away from the southeastern limb of the Sun, ranking as an X2.2-class flare. It was followed by two more weaker flares in the hour afterwards, ranking around M1.3 and M7.1, and then, at 8:52 a.m. Eastern Time, the same region of the Sun sent out another powerful blast, an X1.5 flare and another CME that merged with the first.

NASA's Solar Dynamics Observatory captured the series of flares, shown in the video below:

The region was relatively docile for the rest of the day, but still crackling with energy, and then this morning, at 5:06 a.m. EDT, a third major flare erupted, ranking as X1.0. The trio of flares is shown below:

Although the initial bombardment of x-rays from these flares caused some radio blackouts over Europe and Africa, forecasters expected that there would be no effects here on Earth from the coronal mass ejections launched into space by these flares. However, according to SpaceWeather.com, it now appears as though the combination of the first two CMEs (what they call a 'cannibal CME') will strike a glancing blow off Earth's magnetic field sometime around midday on Friday, June 13, sparking geomagnetic storms. This could mean some excellent aurora watching for anyone at higher latitudes on Friday night and into Saturday morning. The view may be spoiled a bit by the Full Moon, but given some of the spectacular views seen lately, it should still be worth it to check out the show.

Currently, scientists are still keeping an eye on an active region of the Sun, a sun spot complex called AR2080/AR2085 that's just passing the middle of the face of the Sun. With the energy that this complex has been crackling with, it was causing concerns about an Earth-directed flare and CME. When coronal mass ejections impact on Earth's magnetic field, the particles are directed around the planet, so we on the surface are protected from the direct radiation they represent. However, powerful CMEs can cause equally powerful 'backlashes' from the tail of Earth's magnetic field, which can spark strong geomagnetic storms. While these don't have any direct impact on us, they can induce electric currents in our technology and power grids, possibly causing power surges and blackouts. If that seems far-fetched, this exact thing happened in the province of Quebec in March of 1989

It appears as though AR2080/AR2085 may pass us without incident, but active region AR2087, which blasted out the flares over the past two days, is just now starting its own march across the face of the Sun. If it continues to throw off these kinds of flares, it could have impacts on Earth over the next week or so, at least giving us some spectacular auroras. 

To monitor the activity of the Sun, you can check out SpaceWeather.com, NASA's Solar Dynamics Observatory (@NASA_SDO), NASA's STEREO mission website, or sites like Helioviewer.org

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