An extraordinarily intense flare erupted from the sun on Saturday afternoon.
“It was totally unprecedented,” Mike Schneider, the National Weather Service director of space weather, said of the incident.
Widespread power outage threat from massive solar flare https://t.co/HTUDNLem00 via @nytimes — Adam Smith (@amdstwatson) December 9, 2018
As the sun’s sunspot group, which is about the size of five Earths, rotated on Saturday afternoon, a low-level burst exploded with such intensity it caught the attention of the solar research community. NASA scientists confirmed via its Solar Dynamics Observatory that the flare contained a “super-cell.”
Scientists closely monitor sunspots for clues of the sun’s weather patterns. Active sunspots are rare and the solar system has rarely witnessed such an influx in stellar activity. Sunspots allow heat to escape from the sun and would otherwise bubble up to create giant clouds of gas that could harm communications networks and radio waves. Sunspots are essential to an active sun, but are so rare they have not happened at the same time since 2011.
According to a statement released by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the solar flare is part of an active solar weather season. The energetic radiation from the flare was received by the U.S. Geomagnetic Spectrometer in space, which points towards Earth, where it was released into the atmosphere.
Schneider told The Washington Post the Geomagnetic National Distress Distress Alert system (GNDAS) alert system began receiving a warning at 4:05 p.m. Saturday that could cause a north American blackout. By 5:40 p.m., the system said an outage was expected by noon on Tuesday and further warned that blackouts could cause additional interference in transportation systems.
Tundra, a private weather forecaster, followed up those comments with a report stating it too was receiving warnings about potential blackouts, with two additional systems stating widespread interruptions of power and communications were likely.
Meanwhile, the National Weather Service issued a high-tension wind advisory at 4:30 p.m. saying a significant solar storm could threaten communications and transportation systems along the East Coast from New York City to Maine, with geomagnetic storms coming from one of the strongest solar flares in years.
The night sky in Washington lit up as northerly winds of 50 miles per hour reached a peak around 9 p.m. Sunday, reaching 70 miles per hour by 10 p.m.
Read more on this story from Washington Post correspondent Adam Smith here.