The effect of flares on total solar irradiance

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  • LETTERSPUBLISHED ONLINE: 15 AUGUST 2010 | DOI: 10.1038/NPHYS1741

    The effect of flares on total solar irradianceMatthieu Kretzschmar1*, Thierry Dudok de Wit1, Werner Schmutz2, Sabri Mekaoui3,Jean-Franois Hochedez4 and Steven Dewitte3

    Flares are powerful bursts of energy released by relativelypoorly understood processes that take place in the atmo-spheres of stars1. However, although solar flares, from ourown Sun, are the most energetic events in the solar system,in comparison to the total output of the Sun they are barelynoticeable2,3. Consequently, the total amount of radiant energythey generate is not precisely known, and their potential con-tribution to variations in the total solar irradiance4 incident onthe Earth has so far been overlooked. In this work, we identifya measurable signal from relatively moderate solar flares intotal solar irradiance data. We find that the total energyradiated by flares exceeds by two orders of magnitude theflare energy radiated in the soft-X-ray domain only, indicatinga major contribution in the visible domain. These results haveimplications for our understanding of solar-flare activity andthe variability of our star.

    Flares are sudden bursts of electromagnetic radiation occurringin stellar atmospheres. They are preferentially observed in cooldMe stars where contrast is higher. However, flares have also beenobserved in other types of star1. In the case of the Sun, imagingcapabilities have made it possible to observe flares in the visibledomain5,6 and at short wavelengths, in the X-ray or extreme-ultraviolet domains, where the contrast is highest and high-quality space instrumentation has been purpose built. However,the total energy radiated by flares and its spectral distributionremains largely unknown. In fact, the flare signal in the visibledomain or in spectrally integrated observations is hindered by thebackground fluctuations that are caused both by internal acousticwaves and by solar granulation (see Fig. 1). This explains why,among the more than 20,000 flares that occurred in the mostrecent solar cycle, only four exceptionally large ones have beenidentified up to now7 in the total solar irradiance (TSI), that is,the flux of solar light received at all wavelengths at the top ofthe Earths atmosphere. The TSI is the primary energy input toEarth, so identifying the impact of flares on TSI is of fundamentalimportance in several aspects: it provides an important constraintfor the physics of flares, it makes it possible to compare flareson other stars and it offers an estimate of flare contribution tosolar luminosity.

    To identify the effect of flares on the TSI, the aforementionedfluctuations must be somehow cancelled out; to do so, we carriedout a conditional-average analysis8, which is also known as asuperposed-epoch analysis. The procedure involves (1) selecting aset of flares, (2) extracting an excerpt of the irradiance time seriesaround the flare peak time for these events and (3) averaging (orsuperposing) these smaller time series in such away that flares occurat the same time in all time series.

    1LPC2ELaboratoire de Physique et Chimie de lEnvironnement et de lEspace, UMR 6115 CNRS et Universit dOrlans, 3A Av. de la RechercheScientifique, Orlans Cedex 2, France, 2Physikalisch-Meteorologisches Observatorium Davos and World Radiation Center (PMOD/WRC), Dorfstrasse 33,7260 Davos Dorf, Switzerland, 3Royal Meteorological Institute of Belgium, Ringlaan 3, 1180 Brussels, Belgium, 4Solar Influences Data Analysis Centre /Royal Observatory of Belgium, Circular Avenue 3, B-1180 Brussels, Belgium. *e-mail: matthieu.kretzschmar@cnrs-orleans.fr.

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    Figure 1 | Detection of flares in the TSI through superposed-epochanalysis. a, Variation of TSI during a single X4 flare, which occurred on 26November 2000. The flare shows large contrasts in the extreme-ultravioletand SXR domain but is barely perceptibleif at allin the TSI. Thestandard deviation, , of the PMOV6 time series is 0.07 W m2, whichcorresponds to about 50 ppm (we assume a mean TSI value of 1,365 toconvert from W m2 to ppm). b, Averaged TSI variations in ppm for 130 ofthe largest solar flares of the most recent solar cycle occurring at aheliocentric angle

  • NATURE PHYSICS DOI: 10.1038/NPHYS1741 LETTERS

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    42 flares from X10 to X1.3 90 flares from X1.3 to M5.1

    267 flares from M5.1 to M1.6 1,477 flares from M1.6 to C4

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    Figure 2 | Averaged TSI variations during flares of smaller amplitudes. ad, The TSI time-series averages over four exclusive sets of solar flares ofdecreasing amplitude. The black and pink curves correspond respectively to the TSI measured by the PMOV6 and the DIARAD radiometers. The thick linesare 6 min running averages. The dashed lines correspond to the 95% confidence levels for the thin curves (twice the standard deviation computedeverywhere except for 1 h around the flare).

    We applied this procedure to measurements of the TSI recordedby the PMO and DIARAD radiometers of the VIRGO (ref. 9)experiment onboard the SOHO mission between 1996 and 2007,that is, during the whole 23rd solar cycle. We used the soft-X-ray(SXR) flux observed by the GOES satellites in the spectral range0.10.8 nm to retrieve the flare information and in particular thepeak time. The flare amplitude is given by its X-ray class: the letterindicates a power of ten (X is 4, M is 5, C is 6, and soon). A flare of class M4.5 thus corresponds to a SXR peak flux ofI SXR = 4.5 105 Wm2. We considered only flares occurring atheliocentric angle less than 60 (to limit line-of-sight effects) andof class greater than M3 to stay sufficiently above the instrumentalbackground. Tomaximize the flare signal, we ranked the flares fromthe largest to the smallest using the SXR flux peak F SXR measured bythe GOES satellites: F1SXR>F2SXR> >FiSXR> >FNSXR, and weapplied the analysis to several sets of flares that are characterizedby two values: the largest flare of the set (denoted by its rank k)and the total number n of flares inside the set (the smallest flareof the set then being of rank k+n1). For each flare, we selecteda TSI interval of = 7 h in such a way that the flare peak timeis situated 180min after the interval begins. These short intervalswere divided by their time average before being superposed, sothe average relative TSI variations resulting from the analysis canbe expressed as I (k,n, t ) = 106 1/n(k+n1i=k (Ii(t )/Ii(t ) )1),where Ii(t ) is the measured TSI time series during the flare of ranki and I (k,n,t ) is expressed in parts per million (ppm). The analysisis based on the fact that, although the TSI value at peak time Ii(tpeak)cannot be distinguished from the value at other times, it includesa small contribution Iif due to the flare. At times where no flareemission occurs (far from tpeak), the incoherent fluctuations areaveraged out and the value I (t ) goes to zero as /

    n, where is

    the standard deviation of the original time series. At the peak ofthe flare, the coherent contribution of the flares causes the averagevalue to differ from zero and to tend towards the average relative

    TSI increase I (k,n,tpeak)= I f(k,n)=1/n(k+n1i=k Iif). This supposesthat other phenomena such as acoustic waves and active-regionevolution are not in phase with the flares and therefore do notcontribute to the flare signature.

    We first considered the conditional averaging of 130 very largeflares of the most recent solar cycle, shown in Fig. 1b. First itshould be noted that the fluctuation level is reduced from its initiallevel of about = 50 ppm to about (n) = 50/n ppm in theaveraged curve. More importantly, the average TSI clearly revealsa statistically significant peak at the time of the flare. Most of the

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    Figure 3 | Total energy radiated by solar flares versus the energy radiatedin X-rays. The black and pink symbols correspond respectively to estimatesusing PMO6V and DIARAD. Each point corresponds to a panel of Fig. 2.The error bars correspond to the 1 dispersion in the averaged time seriesand are only indicative; the uncertainties are in fact larger because part ofthe flare profile is below the noise level.

    NATURE PHYSICS | VOL 6 | SEPTEMBER 2010 | www.nature.com/naturephysics 691 2010 Macmillan Publishers Limited. All rights reserved.

  • LETTERS NATURE PHYSICS DOI: 10.1038/NPHYS1741

    TSI increase happens before the key time, which shows that thisemission comesmainly from the impulsive phase.

    This remarkable result remains valid when we consider flares oflower amplitude (see Fig. 2), for the first time revealing a significantimpact on the TSI, not only for the few largest flares but also forthe numerous smaller ones. Figure 2 shows four exclusive sets offlares with a clear signature in the TSI at the time of the X-rayflare. For the smallest flare in panel d, the signal is less clear inthe DIARAD data, which can at least in part be explained by thesmaller duty cycle of the instruments. It is important to note thatthe apparent periodic patterns in Figs 2 and 1 are due to the randomsuperposition of the pseudo-periodic TSI oscillations at the typicalfrequency of p-modes (3mHz); these patterns are more prominentin the smoothed curves but remain below the 2 level, and canthus hardly be interpreted as actual signatures of physical processesrelated to flares. Figures 1 and 2 show the first important findingof this study, namely that the total radiative output of the Sun issensitive to both large and small flares.

    Finally, let us look at another quantity of great interest:namely the total energy radiated by flares. This energy wassimply estimated by integrating the averaged TSI variations over20min around the peak time and multiplying it by the factor1,365.107(1au)21.4pi , the factor 1.4 being the best compromisebetween a uniform angular distribution (factor 2pi) expected foroptically thin wavelengths and a Lambertian distribution (factorpi ; ref.7). The fixed integration time avoids errors caused by lowsignal-to-noise ratio in determining the flare duration.

    The main conclusion that can be drawn from the results, whichare shown in Fig. 3, is that the total energy radiated by solarflares exceeds by two orders of magnitude the energy radiatedin the SXR domain; this scaling holds for two decades of flareamplitudes. This confirms the recent surprisingly large estimate forthe largest flares only3,7,10, while considerably extending its validityrange; this result affects the whole energy budget of flares as wellas the relation between flares and TSI. It should also be notedthat the values shown in Fig. 3 could actually be underestimatedbecause flares usually emit over a longer time than that used forthe integration. The relatively small contribution of X-rays to thetotal emission points towards a dominant energy contributionof longer wavelengths, mainly in the near-ultraviolet and visibledomains. This is supported by extending our analysis to spectralirradiance measurements carried out in the visible domain by the

    SPM sensors of the VIRGO instrument, which shows that flaresproduce an increase in these visible channels that is similar intime and amplitude to that observed in the TSI (not shown). Itthus seems that the contributions of the visible and near-ultravioletemission to the total flare emission are large enough to make thesignature of flares detectable in the total radiative output of our star.

    Received 5 May 2009; accepted 29 June 2010; published online15 August 2010

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    Annu. Rev. Astron. Astrophys. 29, 257324 (1991).2. Hudson, H. S. &Willson, R. C. Upper limits on the total radiant energy of solar

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    261269 (1989).7. Woods, T. N., Kopp, G. & Chamberlin, P. C. Contributions of the solar

    ultraviolet irradiance to the total solar irradiance during large flares.J. Geophys. Res. 111, A10S14 (2006).

    8. Johnsen, H., Pcseli, H. L. & Trulsen, J. Conditional eddies in plasmaturbulence. Phys. Fluids 30, 22392254 (1987).

    9. Frohlich, C. et al. First results fromVIRGO, the experiment for helioseismologyand solar irradiance monitoring on SOHO. Sol. Phys. 170, 125 (1997).

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    AcknowledgementsThis work has received funding from the European Communitys Seventh FrameworkProgramme (FP7/2007-2013) under the grant agreement No 218816 (SOTERIA project,www.soteria-space.eu). J-F.H., T.D.d.W. and M.K. also acknowledge financial supportfrom the FrenchBelgian partnership program Tournesol.

    Author contributionsS.D., S.M., W.S. and J-F.H. were involved in the design of the study. T.D.d.W. wasinvolved in the analysis of the data. M.K. analysed the data and drafted the manuscript.All authors discussed the results and commented on the manuscript.

    Additional informationThe authors declare no competing financial interests. Reprints and permissionsinformation is available online at http://npg.nature.com/reprintsandpermissions.Correspondence and requests for materials should be addressed to M.K.

    692 NATURE PHYSICS | VOL 6 | SEPTEMBER 2010 | www.nature.com/naturephysics 2010 Macmillan Publishers Limited. All rights reserved.

    The effect of flares on total solar irradianceReferencesFigure 1 Detection of flares in the TSI through superposed-epoch analysis.Figure 2 Averaged TSI variations during flares of smaller amplitudes.Figure 3 Total energy radiated by solar flares versus the energy radiated in X-rays.AcknowledgementsAuthor contributionsAdditional information