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Largest X-class solar flare of past several years explodes from Sun

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Massive solar flares, including what NOAA's Space Weather Prediction Center (SWPC) says is the largest solar flare of the current 11-year solar cycle, continue to explode from the Sun this week.

On Tuesday, the X8.7 flare was seen blasting out of the active sunspot region of the Sun responsible for the recent solar weather, including the dazzling display of Northern Lights that stretched across the nation on Friday night.

An X flare is the most intense, and the number represents its strength. While the Sun produces these bursts of energy frequently, flares of this magnitude are not common. 

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"Region 3664 produced yet another X-ray flare as it moves beyond the Western solar limb," the SWPC said. "This time, it was an X8.7 flare, the largest of this solar cycle."

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But unlike the previous X-class flares last week, this flare was not directed at Earth and isn't expected to cause any intense geomagnetic storming or large-scale communication issues, aside from temporary degradation of high-frequency radio signals on the sunlit side of Earth.

Two other solar flares, an X1.7 and X1.2, were seen blasting away from the Sun before the X8.7 flare was detected.

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On Wednesday, the SWPC said region 3664 "remains relentless", producing an X3.4 flare.

A new region started erupting energy on Wednesday, including a strong X2.9 flare. The SWPC said the flare could produce radio blackouts on the sunlit side of Earth.

The flare may have an associated coronal mass ejection (CME), triggering geomagnetic storms on Earth and more Northern Lights, but SWPC forecasters are still determining if it will have any impacts on Earth. 

Geomagnetic storming eases up

Before the most powerful solar flare let loose, the SWPC said a coronal mass ejection, which is an eruption of solar material from the Sun, could arrive at Earth and lead to an increase in geomagnetic activity.

The SWPC had issued a G2 "moderate" Geomagnetic Storm Watch for Tuesday but said watches at that level are not uncommon. To compare, Friday's geomagnetic storms reached the top G5 "extreme" level.

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A G2 geomagnetic storm, if lasting long enough, could potentially impact power grids, like transformer damage, and could force corrective actions on spacecraft. But they usually do nothing more than trigger a round of Northern Lights that could stretch as far south as some northern and Upper Midwest states from New York to Idaho.

This graphic shows past solar storm conditions.

(FOX Weather)

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As of Wednesday, only minor (level 1) Geomagnetic Storm impacts are forecast by the SWPC.

Northern Lights visible in Florida, Texas last week

Late last week, the strongest solar activity in decades sparked a dazzling display of the Northern Lights that was enjoyed by people worldwide. The display reached as far south as Florida and Texas in the southern U.S., and even parts of northern Mexico caught a glimpse.

The sky was filled with brilliant colors of green, pink, purple and red from the Northern Lights on Friday and Saturday after a massive sunspot the width of 17 Earths spewed solar flares, leading to the geomagnetic storm activity reaching Level 5 "extreme" conditions.

NASA's JPSS satellite captured the image below of the auroras as the storm passed over North America on May 11.

NOAA's JPSS Program satellites captured imagery of the stunning auroras that were visible in locations across the globe on May 11, 2024. 

(NOAA/NASA)

The Level 5 geomagnetic storm was the first to hit Earth since October 2003. That storm knocked out power in Sweden and damaged electrical transformers in South Africa.

However, this week's Northern Lights display is not expected to be as vivid or intense as last week's.

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