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Evidence of Enormous, 2600-Year-Old Solar Storm Found in Greenland

15 March 2019

When the solar storm causes a disturbance in our planet's magnetosphere, it's called a geomagnetic storm which can wreak devastation on power grids across the planet.

Should a similar event happen today, it could potentially destroy modern technological infrastructure such as those crucial to navigation and communication.

Solar storms are triggered by flares of cosmic particles streaming towards Earth, bombarding its magnetic field and interfering with various technologies.

Now, an increasing amount of research indicates that solar storms can be even more powerful than measurements have shown so far via direct observations. But this study shows that the sun is capable of producing far more energetic-and possibly more damaging-events than we've witnessed in the last 50 years.

Professor Raimund Muscheler, from Lund University in Sweden, said: "If that solar storm had occurred today, it could have had severe effects on our hi-tech society". However, at times the stream of particles is particularly strong when a solar storm sweeps past. The researchers now plan to carry out a systematic search to better understand just how often big solar storms hit Earth, so we can be better prepared for them.

The tell-tale signs were elevated levels of beryllium-10 and chlorine-36 isotopes embedded in the ice, both evidence of chemical reactions kicked off by the Sun's activity reaching through Earth's magnetic shield to the surface. The cores come from Greenland and contain ice formed over the past about 100,000 years.

The team made this observation after studying a band of radioactive elements, unleashed by a storm that struck the planet in 660 BC, preserved in the ice almost half a kilometre beneath the surface.

They found traces of chlorine and beryllium isotopes in the ice from the deadly storm over 2,500 years ago. The latter was, to date, the biggest solar event on record.

"This study provides evidence of an enormous solar storm around 2,610 B.P. It is only the third such event reliably documented and is comparable with the strongest event detected at AD 774/775", Muscheler and colleagues wrote in their study published in the journal PNAS.

On the basis of previous events, which have been identified between years 775 and 994, the scientists believe that these outbursts are probably a normal part of the Sun's cycle. A new study has made a decision to analyze ice cores (samples of ice which are recovered from glaciers and zones where the ice is ancient) as they aimed to learn more about the phenomenon and how it can influence the world.

"We need to search systematically for these events in the environmental archives to get a good idea about the statistics - that is, the risks - for such events and also smaller events", Muscheler added.

Evidence of Enormous, 2600-Year-Old Solar Storm Found in Greenland