In 1859, human industrialization received a major reality check when the Carrington Event – a massive eruption from the sun, sent electrical currents ripping through the Sun’s atmosphere, whipping out telegraph systems, causing fires and chaos. Now, scientists say they have discovered evidence of the largest solar storm ever, and it was even bigger.
The Sun is a beautiful but volatile cosmic object, and we’ve known for a long time that our Sun was capable of terrible things. This new evidence suggests that our planet is at the mercy of our solar system’s star even more than we previously thought.
Evidence of the newly discovered largest solar storm ever was found in the rings of ancient, partially fossilized trees. According to scientists, the storm took place roughly 14,300 years ago, and was even more powerful than the Carrington. Luckily, there wasn’t any kind of technical grid around to mess up back then.
Solar storms – often called geomagnetic storms – are very common on Earth. But when you have one of the magnitude of the Carrington Event, you’re bound to see a lot of issues with the things that we rely on heavily – like GPS, electricity, telephones, etc. Most of the time, the effects of these storms on our electric grid are pretty mild. However, events like the Carrington and this new, unnamed storm are outliers that have the potential to leave things in ruin.
Evidence of that yet unnamed solar storm, which scientists estimate to be the largest we have ever recorded, was found within the rings of ancient, subfossilized trees near the banks of the Drouzet River in the Southern French Alps. Subfossilized means that the trees haven’t wholly fossilized.
Researchers created slices of these trees and found evidence of huge spikes in radiocarbon (or radioactive carbon-14) – an element that constantly rains down on Earth during solar storms. The huge spike in radiocarbon suggests that a larger solar storm than anything else we’ve recorded took place during the lifetime of these trees. Because of the location within the rings, the scientists dated it to just over 14,000 years ago.
Other evidence that this solar storm happened has also been found in ice cores extracted from Greenland, which show increased concentrations of beryllium, an isotope that is also tied to solar storms and radiation storms, in ice that dates back to roughly 14,300 years ago. A study on the discovery will be available in Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society A later this month.