Almost 3,000 years ago, a storm roared across the Earth that today would THREATEN COMMUNICATIONS, TECHNOLOGY AND FLIGHTS
Evidence of an unusually strong solar storm that hit the Earth in 660 BC was discovered in the ice sheet of Greenland and shows that we still have much to learn about this disturbing phenomenon.
An extreme form of solar storm, known as a solar proton event or proton storm (SPE), hit the blue planet 2,678 years ago. If an event of that magnitude happened today, it would probably cause damage to our technological infrastructure, including navigation and communications.
Lund University geologist Raimund Muscheler and his colleagues found the isotopes beryllium-10 and chlorine-36 in the ancient ice sheets of Greenland, which revealed that in 660 BC. the third mass SPE known to scientists occurred. The other two occurred in 1245 and 1025. The latest discovery means that solar storms of this magnitude occur more often than previously thought – maybe every 1,000 years, but this conclusion requires more data.
A proton storm occurs on the eve of a massive solar flare or the ejection of a coronal mass from the Sun. Particle jets, including charged protons, are then sent to Earth, which interact with our atmosphere to increase the rate of radioisotope production, including carbon-14, beryllium-10 and chlorine-36. Usually, a proton storm is detected as a sudden increase in carbon-14 in the trees, but they can also be seen as sudden jumps in beryllium-10 and chlorine-36 in ancient ice sheets.
Proton storms can temporarily damage the Earth’s ozone layer, which further allows more ultraviolet radiation to reach the surface. It is bad for living beings, but it cannot cause mass extinction. In terms of risk, proton storms are a much bigger problem for our technology – a strong enough SPE is a threat to communications and navigation systems, space technology and air travel. Such extreme space weather can also harm astronauts on the International Space Station who are not protected by the Earth’s atmosphere.
Proton storms have been detected before, including the one in Quebec in 1989 and Sweden in 2003, but scientists say the newly discovered ancient SPE was stronger than anything seen by our modern instruments in the past 70 years.