PORTLAND, Ore. (KOIN) – A sunspot that’s larger than Earth has the potential to produce solar flares, but a space science expert said this is normal activity for the sun’s current cycle. 

Active Region 3038, known as AR3038, is growing quickly. Experts say it’s doubled in size in the last three days and could blast M-class solar flares, medium-size flares that can cause brief radio blackouts, toward Earth. 

As scary as this sounds, Jim Todd, director of space science education at the Oregon Museum of Science and Industry, said this is not unusual for the sun. 

The sun is currently entering Cycle 25. Every 11 years or so, the sun’s magnetic field completely flips, meaning its north and south poles switch places. When a cycle begins, sunspots are usually rare. However, as the cycle advances, sunspots become more frequent and common. 

The latest cycle started in 2020 and is expected to peak in 2025. Todd said the sunspots scientists are seeing now are just the beginning. 

“We’re kind of on that upward slope. So, if there’s anything to be said, we’re just starting and we’re going to see more and more activity,” he explained. 

In this image of the sun, AR3038 is visible on the right side. Image taken June 21, 2022. Courtesy SOD/NASA

Sunspots, like AR3038, look like blemishes on the sun because the temperature on the spots is cooler than the rest of the surface, as much as 3,000 degrees cooler. They can last days or even for months.

Todd said they occur when the sun’s magnetic field gets “kind of tangled up” under its surface. This creates a disturbance resulting in a sunspot and often solar flares, which are bursts of electromagnetic radiation, also known as a solar storm. 

So, are these storms dangerous to Earth? 

Todd said they could be, but they usually don’t affect the planet. That’s because earth is protected by its magnetic field. 

“We have like a force field in a way, a magnetic field protecting us from all of this, but with no guarantee. If we have the right storm, the right direction, then we will experience what we call a big storm,” he said. 

Earth’s magnetic field works like a shield and bends the energy particles released by the sun around the planet. That energy is then funneled down at Earth’s north and south pole, resulting in the northern lights and southern lights, aurora borealis and aurora australis. 

If a solar flare is large enough, Todd said it could create issues to Earth’s power grid and take out communication and science satellites. 

The largest recorded geomagnetic storm occurred on September 1, 1859, during Cycle 10. It was known as the Carrington Event. Todd said when it occurred, aurorae were visible from all parts of the Earth. The power grid at the time was nothing compared to what it is in the present-day, but the storm did short out telegraph wires, Science.com reports

In this image of the sun, AR3038 is visible on the right side. Image taken June 21, 2022. Courtesy SOD/NASA

This particular sunspot, AR3038, is not likely to cause any major flares. As of Thursday, June 16, it had a 65% chance of producing smaller C-class solar flames, a 30% chance of producing medium M-class solar flames, and a 10% chance of producing large X-class solar flames. 

Todd said this is nothing to worry about. He said astronomers are constantly monitoring the sun’s activity and there are several satellites circling the planet that should warn NASA of anything alarming. It typically takes a few days before the energy from a solar flare reaches Earth. 

NASA has images online showing AR3038 and other sunspots. Todd reminds people that they should never stare directly into the sun to try to examine it.