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Sun appears ready to flip its magnetic poles, crackling with flares and eruptions

By Marshall Connolly, Catholic Online (NEWS CONSORTIUM)
November 8th, 2013
Catholic Online (www.catholic.org)

The Sun is preparing to flip its north and south poles as evidenced by a surge in activity on its surface. On Thursday the Sun emitted the most powerful solar flare of the year and more such events appear to be imminent.

LOS ANGELES, CA (Catholic Online) - On Thursday, the Sun emitted an X3.3 class solar flare, a powerful discharge associated with heightened solar activity. The flare is a sign that the Sun is about to reverse its polarity, exchanging its south pole for its north, and vice-versa.

This is certainly a dramatic event, but it is also regular and predictable. The Sun has a cycle that repeats every 11 years. At the low point of the cycle, the Sun is quiet and the solar disk is largely featureless. As the Sun ramps up to its polar flip, sunspots begin to appear at the surface, created by cooling at the surface as the Sun's multitude of smaller magnetic fields twist and contort. Unlike the Earth, which is relatively solid, the Sun has thousands of smaller magnetic fields because it is made of seething hydrogen gas, plasma really, and other elements.

Eventually, these twisted field-lines contort so much, they snap and eject mass quantities of electrically charged particles into space. These eruptions are called coronal mass ejections.

Occasionally, these CMEs are directed towards Earth and when they eventually impact, a shower of charged particles will flow along planet Earth's magnetic field lines towards the North and South poles of the planet, striking and exciting molecules in the upper atmosphere. These excited molecules glow like neon lights, causing breathtaking auroras.

Occasionally, these storms are so powerful they cause auroras so powerful they become visible at lower latitudes. 

This week has been very active for the Sun, in a year which has been far below average overall. The sudden surge in activity has scientists suspicious that the polar flip is about to occur.

In the weeks and days before the flip, it is expected that the Sun will fire off more flares and more CMEs. It is possible that one or more of these CMEs could be directed at Earth, in which case we may see auroras at lower latitudes. However, chances of this happening are fairly slim, even under the most favorable of circumstances.

While the aurora is the best-known result of a CME, there are some minor dangers associated with them as well. A CME can cause power surges on both Earth-orbiting satellites at with the power grid on land. In both cases, engineers can make adjustments to protect infrastructure, so even now, with the Sun reaching the peak of its cycle, any danger to Earth remains quite low to virtually non-existent.

For now, it is astronomers who are most excited about happenings on the Sun. As for the rest of us, we have little to worry about as we continue to enjoy protection from the active Sun by our own magnetic field here on Earth.

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