Tuesday, May 28, 2024

Trees hide clues to largest solar storm that hit Earth 165 years ago

Trees are not just witnesses to historical events due to their longevity, they are also record keepers and scientists are now using them to study how the Sun behaves.

Scientists have made a big jump leap in understanding solar storms, particularly the historic Carrington Event of 1859, through the analysis of radiocarbon concentrations in tree rings from Lapland.

This research not only sheds light on the effects of one of the largest recorded solar storms but also paves the way for better preparation against future geomagnetic disturbances.

The Carrington Event, known for its vivid aurora and disruption to telegraph systems worldwide, has long intrigued scientists. However, until now, the ability to study medium-sized storms like this through radiocarbon dating has been limited.

The collaborative effort involving the University of Helsinki, Natural Resources Institute Finland, and the University of Oulu marks the first time an increase in radiocarbon concentrations following the Carrington storm has been detected in tree rings, offering a new method to investigate solar storm frequencies and their impacts on Earth.

Solar storms result from interactions between solar plasma flows and Earth’s geomagnetic field, leading to phenomena such as aurorae. High-energy particles from these storms can produce radiocarbon (14C) in the upper atmosphere, which eventually gets absorbed by plants through photosynthesis, leaving a record in the annual rings of trees.

By analysing these rings, researchers can trace back and study past solar events.

Markku Oinonen, Director of the University of Helsinki’s Laboratory of Chronology, emphasises the importance of radiocarbon as a cosmic marker that captures phenomena related to Earth, the solar system, and outer space.

This discovery is crucial for understanding solar behaviour and its potential disruptions to modern technology, including electrical and mobile networks, satellite, and navigation systems.

The study used a dynamic atmospheric carbon transport model developed by researchers at the University of Oulu to interpret the results, highlighting geographical differences in radiocarbon distribution.

The findings suggest that the excess radiocarbon from the Carrington Event was primarily transported to the lower atmosphere through northern regions, challenging previous assumptions about its movement.

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