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Gigantic Coronal Hole 60 Earths Wide Aims Radiation Directly at Earth

An enormous dark hole has appeared on the surface of the sun, spewing powerful streams of unusually fast radiation, identified as solar wind, directly toward Earth.

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Zac Aubert

Zac Aubert

Sat Dec 09 2023Written by Zac Aubert

An enormous dark hole has appeared on the surface of the sun, spewing powerful streams of unusually fast radiation, identified as solar wind, directly toward Earth.

This colossal dark patch, scientifically termed a coronal hole, emerged near the sun's equator on December 2, quickly reaching a maximum width surpassing 60 Earths within a mere 24 hours. The phenomenon has scientists baffled due to its unprecedented size and orientation at this stage of the solar cycle.

The coronal hole, now wider than 497,000 miles (800,000 kilometers), has been steadily pointing at Earth since December 4, raising concerns among experts about potential impacts on our planet.

Initial predictions hinted at the possibility of a moderate (Gv2) geomagnetic storm, which could result in radio blackouts and spectacular auroral displays over the next few days. However, contrary to expectations, the solar wind has been less intense than anticipated, resulting in a weaker (G1) geomagnetic storm. Nevertheless, auroras remain a possibility at higher latitudes.

The duration of the hole's existence remains uncertain, with previous coronal holes persisting for more than a single solar rotation (27 days), according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). The hole is has now rotated away from Earth, and will have to wait about 21 days to find out if it will remain.

Coronal holes form when the sun's magnetic fields suddenly open up, allowing the upper surface's contents to stream away as solar wind. These dark patches appear cooler and less dense than surrounding plasma, making them visible only in ultraviolet light.

The rapid streams of radiation from coronal holes, faster than normal solar wind, often lead to disturbances in Earth's magnetic shield, known as geomagnetic storms.

Odd Timing

Coronal holes typically occur during solar minimum, but the current phenomenon contradicts expectations, as it appeared near the equator during the ramp-up to the solar maximum.

Solar activity has indeed been on the rise throughout the year, approaching the explosive peak in the sun's approximately 11-year solar cycle, known as the solar maximum.

The massive coronal hole was not anticipated as part of this heightened solar activity.

Recent Activity

Recent weeks have witnessed various signs of increased solar activity.

On November 18, a significant "sunspot archipelago" with at least five sunspot groups emerged, unleashing numerous solar storms.

A fiery "canyon of fire" eruption near the sun's equator on November 25 resulted in a coronal mass ejection (CME) that impacted Earth, leading to rare orange auroras. 

On November 28, an "almost X-class" solar flare produced a cannibal CME, causing a geomagnetic storm that illuminated lower latitudes with auroras over the weekend.

Scientists interpret this surge in solar activity as a strong indicator that the sun is on the verge of reaching the solar maximum. In October, solar cycle forecasts were revised, with experts now predicting that the explosive peak could commence in early 2024.

 As the scientific community closely monitors this celestial spectacle, the mysteries surrounding the equatorial coronal hole continue to deepen, adding a new layer of intrigue to our understanding of solar dynamics.