Evidence of the most powerful solar storm in history has been uncovered in an unlikely place: within the rings of a tree.
This immensely powerful solar storm is thought to have been at least 10 times as powerful as the Carrington Event of 1859, which caused chaos in the rudimentary telegraph system of the time.
New research has now found that a radiocarbon spike found within ancient tree rings in the French Alps reveals the full extent of the sun’s power and the potential danger it poses to us if a storm of this scale occurs today, according to a study published in the journal Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society A Mathematical Physical and Engineering Sciences.
“Radiocarbon is constantly being produced in the upper atmosphere by a chain of reactions initiated by cosmic rays (showers of high energetic particles coming from outside the solar system),” Tim Heaton, professor of applied statistics at the University of Leeds in England and co-author of the paper, told Newsweek.
“Generally, the sun (and the Earth’s magnetic field) help shield us from the constant bombardment of these galactic cosmic rays—so that normally when the sun is more active, we get less radiocarbon being produced.
“However, in 2012, Fusa Miyake discovered a sudden and unexpected spike in radiocarbon levels in a Japanese tree from 774 AD. Initially, this was thought to have been caused by a supernova, but after more study, it was instead identified as being due to a huge solar storm on the sun,” Heaton said.
“Such extreme storms would throw out huge volumes of highly energetic particles from the sun. These energetic solar particles would have entered our atmosphere, leading to a sudden spike in radiocarbon production. Our storm is another Miyake event—but the largest that has ever been identified.”
The radiocarbon spike in the tree rings was found to line up with patterns in beryllium levels in Greenland ice cores, indicating that the spike was caused by a huge solar storm.
“We checked our 14,300-year-old radiocarbon spike by comparing it with beryllium-10 found in Greenland ice cores,” Heaton said. “Beryllium-10 is another chemical isotope that is produced in a very similar way to radiocarbon (in the upper atmosphere by the same energetic particles).
“The fact that the 14,300-year event was supported by both the radiocarbon and the beryllium-10 indicated that the massive production spike we found was genuine (and not noise). It also supported the solar origin of the event— i.e., a massive solar storm considerably bigger than any previously identified.” Solar storms like this one and the Carrington Event are caused by solar flares, which are ejections of powerful X-rays from the sun.
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