Largest solar storm ever detected in ancient tree rings – could wipe out modern technology and cause billions of dollars worth of damage.


Scientists discovered a spike in radiocarbon caused by the largest known solar storm 14,300 years ago. Such an event today can destroy modern technology and cause billions of dollars worth of damage.

By analyzing ancient tree rings found in the French Alps, an international team of scientists has discovered a significant increase in radiocarbon levels 14,300 years ago. The radiocarbon spike was caused by a massive solar storm, the largest solar storm ever detected.
A similar solar storm today would be catastrophic for today’s technological society – potentially destroying telecommunications and satellite systems, causing massive blackouts and costing us billions of dollars. Academics warn that understanding such storms is important to protecting our global communications and energy infrastructure in the future.

New research and implications.

A joint study by an international team of scientists, published today (October 9) in the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society A: Mathematical, Physical and Engineering Sciences, reveals new insights into the extreme behavior of the sun and the associated risks. soil composition.

Largest solar storm ever detected
Subfossil trees in the Drouzet river. photo Credit: Cécile Miramont

A team of researchers from the Collège de France, CEREGE, IMBE, Université Aix-Marseille and the University of Leeds measured radiocarbon levels in ancient trees preserved on the eroded banks of the Druzet River near Gap in the southern French Alps. Logs are subfossils – remains whose petrification process has not yet been completed – cut into small individual rings of wood. Analysis of these individual rings revealed an unprecedented increase in radiocarbon levels 14,300 years ago. By comparing this radiocarbon spike with measurements of the chemical element beryllium found in Greenland ice cores, the team suggested that the spike was caused by a massive solar storm that would have produced large amounts of high-energy particles thrown into Earth’s atmosphere.

Expert opinion and historical context.

“Radiocarbon carbon is continuously produced in the upper atmosphere through a series of reactions triggered by cosmic rays. Recently, scientists have discovered that extreme solar events, including solar flares and coronal mass ejections, also produce short-lived bursts of energetic particles that are stored as a giant pool of radiocarbon production growth in just one year.”

Scientists say a similar massive solar storm occurring today could have a catastrophic effect on modern technological society, potentially knocking out telecommunications, satellite systems and power grids and costing us billions of pounds. They warn that it is critical to understand the risks of such events in the future so that we can prepare, increase the resilience of our communications and energy systems, and protect them from potential damage.

Largest solar storm ever detected
Subfossil trees in the Drouzet Credit: Cécile Miramont

Heaton, Professor of Applied Statistics at the School of Mathematics at the University of Leeds, said: “Extreme solar storms can have huge impacts on Earth. Such superstorms can permanently damage transformers in our grid and cause widespread power outages that can last for months. They can also cause permanent damage to the satellites we depend on for navigation and telecommunications, rendering them useless. They also pose serious radiation risks to astronauts.

Historical solar storms.

Nine such extreme solar storms (known as Miyake events) have now been identified in the past 15,000 years. The latest confirmed Miyake events occurred in 993 and 774 AD. However, the newly discovered 14,300-year-old storm is the largest yet discovered, roughly twice the size of the two storms. The exact nature of these Miyake events remains poorly understood because they have never been directly observed with instruments. They emphasize that we still have a lot to learn about the behavior of the sun and the dangers it poses to Earth’s society. We don’t know what causes these extreme solar storms, how often they happen, or whether we can predict them in any way.

Professor Bader said: “Direct instrumental measurements of solar activity only began in the 17th century, counting sunspots. Today, we also obtain detailed records through ground-based observatories, space probes, and satellites. But all these short-term instrumental recordings are not enough to fully understand the Sun. Radiocarbon measured in tree rings, used in conjunction with beryllium in polar ice cores, provides the best way to understand the sun’s behavior in the distant past”. Ice cores provide the best way to understand the behavior of the Sun in its distant past.

Radiocarbon and historical reconstructions.
The largest directly observed solar storm occurred in 1859 and was known as the Carrington Event. It wreaked havoc on the planet – destroying telegraph machines and creating night lights so bright that the birds began to sing, believing that the sun had begun to rise. However, Miyake’s event, which includes the newly discovered 14,300-year-old storm, was much larger. Professor Heaton said: “Radiocarbon provides an extraordinary way to study the Earth’s history and reconstruct the major events it has experienced. An accurate understanding of our past is essential to accurately predict the future and reduce potential risks. We still have a lot to learn. Each new discovery not only helps to answer existing important questions, but also raises new ones. “

Cécile Miramont, IMBE Associate Professor of Paleoenvironment and Paleoclimate at the University of Aix-en-Provence, said: “It’s really rare to find such a well-preserved group of trees. By comparing the width of individual tree rings on multiple tree trunks, we carefully cut individual trees together using a technique called dendrochronology to create a longer timeline. This allows us to reveal valuable information about past environmental changes and measure the radiocarbon content of unknown periods of solar activity. “

Reference: “Radiocarbon peak at 14,300 cal y BP in subfossil trees provides a pulse response function of the global carbon cycle during the Late Glacial” Authors: Bard E, Miramont C, Capano M, Guibal F, Marschal C, Rostek F, Tuna T, Fagault Y and Heaton TJ October 9, 2023 Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society A. DOI:10.1098/rsta.2022.0206


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