We’ve got a new way to predict solar flares.

Science Daily shares research from NASA’s Solar Dynamics Observatory, or SDO, that gives us a new handle on predicting when the worst solar flares will come, giving us enough extra time to keep the generators going and broadcasts casting when the sun chucks too much radiation our way:

As it progresses through its natural 11-year cycle, the Sun transitions from periods of high to low activity, and back to high again. The scientists focused on X-class flares, the most powerful kind of these solar fireworks. Compared to smaller flares, big flares like these are relatively infrequent; in the last solar cycle, there were around 50. But they can have big impacts, from disrupting radio communications and power grid operations, to — at their most severe — endangering astronauts in the path of harsh solar radiation.

Led by Kanya Kusano, the director of the Institute for Space-Earth Environmental Research at Japan’s Nagoya University, a team of scientists built their model on a kind of magnetic map: SDO’s observations of magnetic fields on the Sun’s surface. Their results were published in Science on July 30, 2020.

It’s well-understood that flares erupt from hot spots of magnetic activity on the solar surface, called active regions. (In visible light, they appear as sunspots, dark blotches that freckle the Sun.) The new model works by identifying key characteristics in an active region, characteristics the scientists theorized are necessary to setting off a massive flare.

The first is the initial trigger. Solar flares, especially X-class ones, unleash huge amounts of energy. Before an eruption, that energy is contained in twisting magnetic field lines that form unstable arches over the active region. According to the scientists, highly twisted rope-like lines are a precursor for the Sun’s biggest flares. With enough twisting, two neighboring arches can combine into one big, double-humped arch. This is an example of what’s known as magnetic reconnection, and the result is an unstable magnetic structure — a bit like a rounded “M” — that can trigger the release of a flood of energy, in the form of a flare.

Where the magnetic reconnection happens is important too, and one of the details the scientists built their model to calculate. Within an active region, there are boundaries where the magnetic field is positive on one side and negative on the other, just like a regular refrigerator magnet.

“It’s similar to an avalanche,” Kusano said. “Avalanches start with a small crack. If the crack is up high on a steep slope, a bigger crash is possible.”

Read more of the research on NASA’s site.