Sunspots and Solar Flares

A sunspot is a cooler, and therefore darker, region of the Sun’s photosphere caused by a solar magnetic disturbance. Strong, dense magnetic fields generated by circulating plasma sometimes become entangled and surge through the photosphere, creating the sunspot. The knot causes the temperature to fall to around 1000 K in the sunspot region, which darkens the photosphere. The dark center of the sunspot is called the umbra, and it is surrounded by a dim filamentary area called the penumbra. Sunspots range from Earth-size “pimples” to swollen scars halfway across the surface. Sunspot activity generally follows an 11-year cycle, called the “sunspot cycle.” A solar flare is a violent eruption of plasma from the chromosphere of the Sun that is whipped up by intense magnetic activity. During the eruption, flares rise thousands of kilometers above the chromosphere, and the plasma temperatures quickly soar to 20 million degrees. Large flares release 10^25 Joules, or about the energy of a few million volcanic eruptions on the Earth. Sunspot and solar flare frequency are strongly related. In addition, flares often disturb the Earth’s atmosphere electrically, thus interfering with radio transmissions. The aurora borealis and aurora australis are results of flare activity that injects energetic particles into Earth’s magnetic field.

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