By examining ancient tree rings unearthed in the French Alps, a team of scientists from across the world has identified a significant increase in radiocarbon levels 14,300 years ago.
The largest solar storm ever recorded was responsible for the radiocarbon rise. The Carrington Event, the greatest solar storm ever directly witnessed, took place in 1859. It produced severe disruption on Earth, shattering telegraph equipment and producing a nighttime aurora that was so dazzling that birds started singing as they thought the sun was rising. There have been nine of these powerful solar storms, or Miyake Events, documented during the last 15,000 years. The most recent verified Miyake events took place in 774 and 993 AD, respectively.
But the storm that has just been identified as being 14,300 years old is the biggest one ever discovered; it is approximately twice as big as these two. The Miyake Events, on the other hand, would have been a staggeringly vast order of magnitude larger in size (including the recently found 14,300-year-old storm). Researchers from the UK, France, and the Czech Republic examined the levels of radiocarbon in old trees that had been preserved inside the eroded banks of the Drouzet River, close to Gap in the Southern French Alps.
The tree trunks, which are incompletely fossilised remnants known as subfossils, were cut into small, single tree rings. The examination of each of these rings revealed a rare radiocarbon peak that occurred exactly 14,300 years ago. The team in the paper published in Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society A: Mathematical, Physical, and Engineering Sciences proposed that the spike was caused by a massive solar storm that would have ejected enormous volumes of energetic particles into Earth’s atmosphere by comparing this radiocarbon spike with measurements of beryllium, a chemical element found in Greenland ice cores. According to the experts, the occurrence of major solar storms like this one in the present might be devastating for our technological civilization, perhaps destroying telecommunications, satellite systems, and electrical grids, costing us billions of pounds.
They caution that in order for us to be ready, develop resilience in our communications and energy systems, and protect them from possible harm, it is crucial to recognise the future hazards of occurrences like these. Extreme solar storms may have significant effects on the planet. Such superstorms might cause months-long, massive blackouts by permanently damaging the transformers in our energy infrastructure.
They may also do irreparable harm to the satellites that serve as our shared source of communication and navigation, rendering them useless. According to Tim Heaton, professor of applied statistics at the School of Mathematics at the University of Leeds in the UK, they would also pose serious radiation dangers to astronauts.