Do sunspots have anything to do with the Earth's magnetic field?

19 December 2010


Do sunspots have anything to do with the Earth's magnetic field?


Chris - The answer is, Alan, that sun spots are an independent entity which occur on the Sun and the Earth's magnetic field doesn't make them happen. But they can interact with the Earth's magnetic field. And it's thanks to the fact that we have a magnetic field, that life is possible on Earth. The Sun is continuously giving rise to what's called the solar wind which is a million mile an hour maelstrom of charged particles that go whizzing past the Earth and are deflected around the planet by our magnetic field. And in fact, it's the interaction of those charged particles with the magnetic field that gives rise to phenomena such as the Northern Lights, the Aurora Borealis, and down in the southern hemisphere, the Aurora Australis. But there was one very, very important event that was documented in the 1850s. It was actually in 1859 and it's known as the Carrington event in honour of the British Astronomer, Richard Carrington who first saw this. What he spotted from his amateur observatory in the south of England was an enormous sun spot on the 1st of September 1859 and this coincided with a very dramatic event that happened on earth when observers, worldwide, recorded the sky turning blood red. There were bolts of lightning shooting down from the clouds like St. Elmo's fire for example and telegraph operators all over the world in countries that had a telegraph, were getting electric shocks. People were being killed and there were fires being started by all these currents surging down the telegraph connections. What was happening was that this sun spot was associated with an enormous coronal mass ejection and this is where the surface of the sun launches a huge amount of charged material as a plasma out into space, going very, very fast, with very high energy, and this would've impacted on the Earth, and the impact of these charged particles going into the Earth's atmosphere, and inducing electricity to flow in anything that could carry a current was what gave rise to the event. And the colour in the sky was because of the charged particles interacting with the atmosphere and with the earth's magnetic field. So, the sun spots do have an impact on what we see here on Earth, but they're not directly linked to the Earth's magnetic field. The Earth's magnetic field will interact with what they do and produce the events that we see.

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