The uncertainty of science: Using observations from the space-based Solar Dynamics Observatory (SDO), solar scientists have developed a new model for predicting the biggest solar flares, and have found it to able to predict a big flare about 56% of the time.
Kusano and his team looked at the seven active regions from the last solar cycle that produced the strongest flares on the Earth-facing side of the Sun (they also focused on flares from part of the Sun that is closest to Earth, where magnetic field observations are best). SDO’s observations of the active regions helped them locate the right magnetic boundaries, and calculate instabilities in the hot spots. In the end, their model predicted seven out of nine total flares, with three false positives. The two that the model didn’t account for, Kusano explained, were exceptions to the rest: Unlike the others, the active region they exploded from were much larger, and didn’t produce a coronal mass ejection along with the flare. [emphasis mine]
What they did was apply their model to active regions on the Sun during the last solar maximum to see if it would accurately predict the events we know did happen. The model predicted that big flares would spout from ten of twelve active regions on the Sun during the last solar cycle. In reality, only seven of those twelve active regions produced flares.
The press release minimizes the three false positives, making believe they don’t count in the total. That’s hogwash. The model got it wrong, and so these false positives must be counted just like the two false negatives.
A prediction rate of 56% is barely above random, so this model needs a lot of work. Nonetheless, it is a major step forward, because it is not based on simple statistics — counting the number of big sunspots and the number of big flares and then calculating the percentage that flare — which is how most solar science models are structured, and thus are really meaningless. Instead, this model is based an actual analysis of the behavior of the Sun’s magnetic field in big active regions when solar flares erupt. They are trying to pinpoint the precise conditions that cause the big flares, and appear to be narrowing the conditions successfully.
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