Video Reveals Reappearance of Massive Sunspot Responsible for Northern Lights

An immense and lively solar sunspot observed on the sun's surface, captured through a solar telescope in late May 2024.

An immense and lively solar sunspot observed on the sun’s surface, captured through a solar telescope in late May 2024.Credit: Courtesy of Andrew McCarthy

The return is imminent.

In the middle of May, the dazzling Northern Lights, or aurora, made a rare appearance in regions unaccustomed to such sights, courtesy of potent solar emissions colliding with Earth. These bursts of energy, like solar flares or coronal mass ejections, are a regular occurrence, particularly as our medium-sized star has reached the peak of its activity cycle (an 11-year solar cycle). These emanations originated from a massive dark area on the sun known as a sunspot, a phenomenon often associated with such solar outbursts.

As the sun revolved, the spot turned away from our view during the latter part of May. However, it is now making a comeback, and the astrophotographer Andrew McCarthy has been diligently recording this colossal, dynamic region. The substantial sunspot — spanning about 15 Earth diameters — is officially designated as “Region 3664.”

“Astounding! This is the same active region that triggered those auroras a few weeks back,” remarked McCarthy, who graciously allowed to share his footage, on May 28. “It has completed its rotation around the far side of the sun and is poised to stir up some commotion once more! This is the aftermath of yesterday’s X-class flare.”

X-class flares represent the most intense category of solar flares, characterized by bursts of light from the sun’s surface. The fact that this solar region continues to produce powerful flares suggests that more spectacular atmospheric displays could be on the horizon, depending on the impact points of forthcoming solar ejections. The active sun has also been generating coronal mass ejections (CMEs) — instances where the sun expels a mass of extremely hot gas (plasma), essentially a piece of the sun, into space. These events were responsible for the recent vivid Northern Lights.

Upon reaching Earth, solar particles may get ensnared by our planet’s magnetic field, journeying towards the poles and colliding with the molecules and particles in our upper atmosphere. Subsequently, these atmospheric particles heat up and emit light.

Sunspots appear dark to us because they represent relatively “cooler” regions on the sun’s surface — around 6,500 degrees Fahrenheit. These spots emerge where the sun’s magnetic field — formed by the vigorous movement of charged particles around the sun — is intense, thereby retaining some heat from the surface.

Significantly, as NASA elucidates, the “magnetic field lines near sunspots often intertwine, intersect, and rearrange.” This intricate process can lead to explosive solar flares or CMEs.

Nevertheless, it’s not all about dazzling atmospheric displays. These occurrences can impact our susceptible electrical and communication systems if adequate precautions are not taken.

During the solar storms of May 2024, numerous agricultural tractors reliant on GPS satellite guidance systems experienced disruptions. In 2003, airlines altered flight paths, incurring substantial costs, to evade communication blackouts. In 1989, an extreme solar storm damaged a $10 million transformer at the Salem Nuclear Power Plant in New Jersey. The same CME caused power outages for millions in Québec, Canada, even leaving individuals stranded in elevators.

There is a possibility of more intense solar storms heading our way in 2024. Should these events impact Earth, you may witness further celestial illuminations. (Hint: Both the National Weather Service and National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration offer updates and forecasts on auroras.)

Jenifer Yesmin

Dan is an enthusiastic and versatile content producer with a background in pop culture, entertainment, and sports. Over the course of his professional journey, Dan… More »

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