Scientists are learning to predict sunspots before they can actually be seen. That’s important because these dark stains on the Sun’s surface can herald scary solar flares and huge coronal mass ejections, which sometimes fry sensitive satellites in Earth orbit and cause power outages on the ground. Such storms are born deep inside the Sun… …results of titanic magnetic forces at work there. These turbulent bubbles boil up to the surface of our star … …where astronomers have been watching them for more than 400 years. But just recently, astrophysicists – using techniques similar to those used for earthquake monitoring – have deduced that subtle vibrations rippling across the visible facade of the Sun are correlated to disturbances far below… …a technique they call “helio-seismology.” In basic terms, sound waves travel faster across a submerged sunspot-forming region than they do through the surrounding area. The acoustic energy signature may appear more than 15 seconds earlier if it’s been ringing across a particularly big storm. That can give officials in charge of communications networks or power grids as much as two days notice before a sunspot finally percolates up…plenty of time to know if the sunspot will be aimed at Earth. The trick now, is to figure out which sunspots will produce flares and mass ejections. But scientists don’t know how to do that trick just yet.
With a techniques borrowed from earthquake detection, researchers are learning to predict where sunspots will boil-up. That gives officials in charge of satellites, power grids and radio communications more warning of crippling geomagnetic storms.