Largest solar storm ever recorded could have catastrophic impact on modern society

An international team of scientists has made a groundbreaking discovery concerning a significant spike in radiocarbon levels that occurred 14,300 years ago. They achieved this by analyzing ancient tree rings found in the French Alps.

This radiocarbon spike, as it turns out, was caused by an enormous solar storm, one of the most significant ever identified in history.

The potential consequences of a similar solar storm in our modern era would be catastrophic for our technologically reliant society. It could lead to the disruption of telecommunications and satellite systems, widespread electricity grid blackouts, and cost billions of pounds.

These academics are urgently emphasizing the importance of comprehending such solar storms to safeguard our global communication and energy infrastructure for the future.

This collaborative research, conducted by an international team of scientists, has been published in Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society A: Mathematical Physical and Engineering Sciences. It provides fresh insights into the sun’s extreme behavior and the risks it poses to Earth.

The research team, consisting of scientists from the Collège de France, CEREGE, IMBE, Aix-Marseille University, and the University of Leeds, conducted radiocarbon level measurements on ancient trees preserved along the eroded banks of the Drouzet River in the Southern French Alps.

Subfossil trees in the Drouzet river. Credit: Cécile Miramont

These tree trunks, classified as subfossils due to their incomplete fossilization process, were carefully sliced into individual tree rings. Examination of these distinct rings revealed an unprecedented surge in radiocarbon levels precisely 14,300 years ago. By cross-referencing this radiocarbon spike with measurements of beryllium from Greenland ice cores, the team suggests that this spike resulted from an immense solar storm that unleashed vast amounts of energetic particles into Earth’s atmosphere.

Edouard Bard, the study’s lead author and a Professor of Climate and Ocean Evolution at the Collège de France and CEREGE, explained, “Radiocarbon is continually produced in the upper atmosphere through a series of reactions initiated by cosmic rays. Recently, scientists have discovered that extreme solar events like solar flares and coronal mass ejections can also generate short-term bursts of energetic particles, which are preserved as significant spikes in radiocarbon production, occurring within just a single year.”

The researchers stress that the occurrence of comparable massive solar storms in the present day could have dire consequences for our technologically advanced society. It could disrupt telecommunications, satellite systems, and electricity grids, incurring substantial financial losses. They emphasize the need to understand the future risks posed by such events, enabling us to prepare, reinforce our communication and energy systems, and protect them from potential harm.

Tim Heaton, a Professor of Applied Statistics in the School of Mathematics at the University of Leeds, added, “Extreme solar storms could have far-reaching impacts on Earth. These super storms could cause permanent damage to the transformers within our electricity grids, leading to extensive and prolonged blackouts. They could also result in irreparable harm to the satellites crucial for navigation and telecommunications, rendering them unusable. Additionally, they would pose severe radiation hazards to astronauts.”

Nine similar extreme solar storms, known as Miyake Events, have been identified over the past 15,000 years. The most recent confirmed Miyake Events occurred in 993 AD and 774 AD. However, this newly discovered 14,300-year-old storm stands out as the largest ever found, roughly twice the size of these two historical events.

Tree rings of a buried subfossil tree in the Drouzet river. Credit: Cécile Miramont

The Miyake Events continue to baffle scientists, as they have never been directly observed through instruments. These occurrences underscore our limited understanding of the sun’s behavior and its potential threats to Earth. Questions linger about the root causes of these extreme solar storms, their frequency, and whether they can be predicted.

Professor Bard emphasized, “Our ability to measure solar activity directly began only in the 17th century, with the tracking of sunspots. Today, we gather detailed records from ground-based observatories, space probes, and satellites. However, these relatively short-term instrumental records fall short in providing a comprehensive understanding of the sun. The use of radiocarbon from tree rings, combined with beryllium data from polar ice cores, offers the most insightful glimpse into the sun’s historical behavior.”

The most substantial solar storm with direct observations took place in 1859, known as the Carrington Event. It wreaked havoc on Earth, damaging telegraph machines and illuminating the night sky with an aurora so brilliant that birds began to sing, mistaking it for sunrise. However, the Miyake Events, including the recently uncovered 14,300-year-old storm, dwarfed the Carrington Event in magnitude.

Subfossil trees in the banks of the Drouzet river. Credit: Cécile Miramont

Professor Heaton commented, “Radiocarbon analysis provides an incredible tool for delving into Earth’s past and reconstructing significant events. An accurate grasp of our history is vital for forecasting the future and managing potential risks. We are still in the process of unraveling the mysteries. Each new revelation not only addresses existing questions but also sparks new inquiries.”

Cécile Miramont, an Associate Professor specializing in Paleoenvironments and Paleoclimates at IMBE, Aix-en-Provence University, marveled at the discovery of this remarkable collection of preserved trees. By meticulously comparing the widths of individual tree rings across multiple tree trunks, they pieced together a longer timeline using dendrochronology. This innovative approach unveiled crucial insights into past environmental shifts and provided a glimpse into uncharted periods of solar activity.

Source: University of Leeds

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