The largest solar storm ever to hit Earth 14,300 years ago

The largest known solar storm occurred 14,300 years ago. The researchers concluded this on the basis of the annual rings of 140 trees buried on the banks of a French river.

Tree trunks in the Alps have revealed that the strongest known solar storm hit Earth 14,300 years ago. If such a solar storm occurred today, the consequences would be unprecedented. This would likely destroy all satellites and disrupt power grids for several months.

Solar storms consist of charged particles emitted by the Sun, magnetized plasma, and gamma rays. When such a solar storm hits Earth, it could cause a spike in the amount of radiocarbon in trees.

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In 2012, the physicist discovered… Fusa Miyake from Nagoya University in Japan who studies the effects of extremely powerful solar flares on ancient tree trunks. Since then, at least nine ancient solar storms have been discovered in this way: so-called Miyake events.

Now statistician Tim Heaton of the University of Leeds in the UK has found evidence of the largest solar storm ever recorded in this way. This storm was almost twice as strong as the second largest event in Miyake. Heaton and his colleagues discovered evidence of the storm in the trunks of ancient pine trees in the southern French Alps.

“We don’t know exactly what would happen if such a solar storm occurred today,” Heaton says. “Some people think such storms would be absolutely catastrophic. They could cause power outages for months across the hemisphere, and destroy solar panels on our satellites, rendering them permanently inoperable,” says Heaton. Other forecasts are less pessimistic, but There’s a lot of uncertainty about it.

Annual episodes

Heaton and his team examined 140 tree trunks buried on the banks of the Dorrance River in Provence. Soil erosion has exposed their trunks. The team examined whether they contained high levels of carbon-14, a type of carbon that contains two more neutrons than usual. Carbon 14 is created when high-energy solar particles collide with the Earth’s atmosphere.

The researchers compared the trees’ annual rings and built a timeline of when each tree lived. For example, they found that a major peak in carbon-14 occurred 14,300 years ago.

They also compared this peak to elevated levels of beryllium in ice samples examined in Greenland. This arises in the same way.

Tree trunks found on the banks of the Durrance River have been exposed due to soil erosion. Photo: Cécile Miramonte.

Rare but intense

“We can’t compare this discovery to anything in modern history,” Heaton says. The largest known solar storm was the Carrington Event of 1859. It caused fires and power surges in telegraph wires. However, the event was so small compared to the Miyake events that it did not even appear as a blob in carbon measurements.

We now know of ten Miyake events in the last 15,000 years. They appear to be relatively rare, but we don’t yet know whether there is a pattern to them and whether they can therefore be predicted. It is also unclear what changes the Sun undergoes before such a solar storm forms. “It doesn’t fit what people thought was the likely behavior of the Sun,” Heaton says. “We don’t even know if they arise from some special behavior of the Sun, or if they are extreme variants of the milder solar storms we normally see.”

Carbon-14 is created only by high-energy molecules that come from the sun, such as protons. What carbon spikes don’t tell us about, geologist says, is what else is emitted from the sun during solar storms — like gamma rays or plasma. Raymond Muscheler From Lund University in Sweden.

More measurements are needed to truly understand these events. ‘This might be the biggest [zonnestorm] “From the past we’ve seen it, but I think it’s just the tip of the iceberg,” Moschler said.

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