Ancient Solar Storm Hidden Under Earth’s Ice

Researchers have discovered a 9,000-year-old solar storm hidden beneath the ice of Greenland and Antarctica. It was remarkably larger than anything recorded in recent history. 

Solar storms occur every few years, usually when the sun is most active. Though not only was the newly discovered solar storm on a whole other level, it had occurred during a quiet phase of the solar cycle. Even scientists are concerned over their ability to predict the next time the sun will let loose again, but traces of distinct isotopes, stuck in ice or sediment, can help them better understand when it will.  Experts know that everybody would be completely unprepared for it. A solar storm of that size could impact satellites and astronauts in orbit, air traffic control, electricity grids, and undersea cables. Damage like that could cause travel restrictions, blackouts, and internet outages that could last for several months. Though, one shouldn’t worry too much since solar storms don’t occur very often.

Usually, a solar flare or a coronal mass ejection (CME) triggers a solar storm. The sun emits about a billion tonnes of energetic particles out into space because of the sudden magnetic reconnection when magnetic field lines in the sun’s corona become tangled and then forcefully snap back into place. If it’s enough, they can hit the Earth’s atmosphere in under a day. When a strong CME goes over the Earth, it could compress its magnetic shield and cause a geomagnetic storm. A geomagnetic storm could damage satellites, interrupt radio transmissions, cause power outages globally, and permanently damage electrical infrastructure. 

The reaction produces radioactive nuclides that are carbon-14, beryllium-10, and chlorine-36. The ice from Greenland and Antarctica have shown the largest amounts of beryllium-10 and chlorine-36 that have ever been detected in the past. Even 1859’s The Carrington Event, was a solar storm so drastic that it made telegraph systems collapse and caused auroras across the globe. If it were to be compared to what had happened 9,000 years ago, it would seem small. After analyzing just how much beryllium-10 and chlorine-36 there was beneath the ice, experts think it might be on par with the largest solar storm ever recorded, dating back to around 775-774 BC.

Although this research can be extensive and time-consuming, scientists are doing what they can to figure out when such a disastrous event could happen again.