What are sunspots and how do they affect our lives?

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When you hear sunspots what do you think of? No, they are not spots on your skin caused by the harmful rays of the sun. Sunspots are small black spots that temporarily appear on the sun itself (or at least the photosphere of the sun). They can have a huge impact on our lives, maybe even greater than the sunburn you got last weekend. Read on to find out more.

In 1859 a scientist first started to track these sunspots and found on one occasion that when they flashed up brightly on the sun before disappearing they caused huge changes to the weather and magnetic activity on Earth. The initial result was an increase in the auroras. While we are used to seeing the Northern and Southern lights at the extreme poles this phenomenon caused them to appear much closer to the equator than is usually seen. More disturbing than that the solar flare sent telegraphs at the time crazy making them very unstable. 

If you consider how times have changed and how much more reliant we are on technology if the same phenomenon happened today to the same or greater degree the impact on our technology could be catastrophic. 

It is easy to think of the sun as a massive light, it just provides heat and energy to the world below and is something we often take for granted. The sun is not so simple and what happens on the sun has a huge impact on what happens on Earth. 

Scientists have begun to understand sunspots to a greater degree and have found that they vary over an 11-year cycle from high to low numbers. Sunspots have a huge impact on magnetic activity and can create bursts of electromagnetic radiation and coronal mass ejections. While both of those terms are a bit confusing, to put it simply, sunspots can release huge amounts of energy and plasma from the sun and direct it towards Earth. 

These particles can cause geomagnetic storms leading to power outages and disruption to satellite, cellular and radio communications, something we are becoming increasingly reliant on. While the Earth’s magnetic field protects us from the majority of these storms the field is weaker at the poles and the effect can be seen greatest there. Studies have actually already shown that in places with higher geomagnetic storms there is a correlation with a loss in GDP. 

So sunspots are not just a conspiracy they have a meaningful effect on the world we live in and the technology we use. While it is nothing to fear it is definitely something worth knowing about.