Solar super flares have struck Earth repeatedly

A solar flare erupted from the sun on September 10, 2017. This flare would be pale compared to any super solar flare. Image via Nasa/ SDO / Goddard.

Scientists discover ancient solar flares

A solar super storm shook the Earth in 774-775 CE. Scientists discovered this event in 2012 when analyzing a peak in carbon-14 find in tree rings. Trees around the world bear evidence of the carbon-14 peak, showing the event was global in scope. Last month, scientists announced that after looking for only 1/6 of the available data on tree rings, they had found evidence of two more events, in 5259 BCE and 7176 BCE.

The scientists submitted their document for peer review in order to Nature Communication on August 10, 2021. Their research shows that there may be more solar super-flares from the past. So these events may not be so “rare”, which serves as a warning to the future Earth.

For the new findings, the scientists again analyzed the tree rings. They analyzed trees from Switzerland, Germany, Ireland, Russia and the United States. When energetic particles from a solar flare interact with the Earth’s atmosphere, they can produce carbon-14, which eventually becomes incorporated into the tree as a chemical footprint. One tree ring equals one year in the life of that tree. Therefore, finding a carbon-14 peak on a tree ring provides an incredibly accurate date for when the event occurred.

Close up view of concentric rings in a large slice through a tree.
Scientists used data from tree rings to find and date the carbon-14 peak. Image by Gabriel Jimenez / Unsplash.

Carbon-14 in tree rings

The Holocene epoch, which began 12,000 years ago and in which we are now, provides a great deal of data on tree rings. But it takes weeks of analysis just to go through a year of data. Thus, having found two other events could change the meaning of “rare” for those events. As the scientists put it in their article:

The growing number of strong MS discovered [solar energetic particle] events that have struck Earth over the past 10,000 years indicate that they cannot be considered extremely rare. So far, only 16.5% of the last 12,400 years have been analyzed.

Scientists have not come across the dates 7176 and 5259 BCE. Other data led them to deduce these years. Scientists already suspected 7176 BC. date using data from ice cores. In ice cores, scientists are looking for beryllium 10 and chlorine 36 as signatures of solar flares. Previous analysis showed a beryllium 10 peak around the date 7176. For the date 5259 BCE, Alexandra Bayliss from the University of Stirling, one of the authors of the article, noticed a gap in the archaeological data at this time.

So, over the past 10,000+ years, scientists know of three major super solar flare events that have left evidence in the form of carbon-14 peaks. With some 85% of the tree ring data to search for, we might find that these powerful solar energetic particle events are more common than we thought.

What if a super solar flare hits today?

Scientists said in the paper that a super solar flare, like the ones they found in ancient history through tree rings, would be devastating to our modern world:

The impact of the newly discovered events would have been catastrophic for airplanes, satellites, modern telecommunications and computer systems, if they occurred today.

One of the most famous solar storms in recorded history is the Carrington event of 1859. This event, which broke telegraph systems – the cutting edge technology of the time – is not even detectable in data on carbon-14 in tree rings. So it would only be a whisper compared to the thunderous assault of a super solar flare. One of the most recent solar events in history is the Solar storm of March 1989. With only a tiny amount of energy that a super solar flare would produce, it nonetheless caused a power outage lasting several hours in Quebec. A super solar flare hitting Earth could pull the “world” off the global web, damaging submarine cables and possibly destroying electronic data, including banking and health information.

But before you worry too much about a dark technological age ahead, take comfort in one fact noted in the document:

Statistics from stars similar to the sun suggest that super-eruptions are extremely rare.

While the sun may have suffered more super-eruptions than we ever expected, they still seem to be an infrequent event, thankfully.

Bottom line: Scientists found evidence of super solar flares thousands of years ago from evidence in tree rings. Could a super solar flare happen again in the future?

Source: Tree rings reveal two strong solar proton events in 7176 and 5259 BCE

Via Scientific American

Read more: Record eruption of Proxima Centauri nearby

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