Bad Astronomy | A solar flare in AD 774 changed the chemistry of Earth’s atmosphere

In AD 774, an extremely powerful explosion of matter and energy from space struck Earth.

Nothing like it has been felt on this planet for 10,000 years. The combination of high-energy light and dramatically accelerated subatomic particles, when this wave collided with Earth, altered the chemistry of the atmosphere enough to be measured centuries later.

Our pre-electronic societies were not completely affected by it. But if this kind of event happened today, the consequences would be Bad.

It was first discovered by analyzing tree rings, among all things. Scientists found that the level of carbon-14, an isotope of carbon, was much higher in the rings of that year than usual. After a few years, looking at air samples taken from the ice core, the scientists saw that there were elevated levels of beryllium-10 and chlorine-36 as well.

The common factor in all of these elements is that they form when extremely high-energy subatomic particles strike the air and Earth. They collide with the cores of atoms, change them, and create them Isotopes. The only way to get particles at such energies is from space, where the strong magnetic fields in exploding stars, for example, can accelerate particles to such high velocities. We call these isotopes CosmicMade of space.

What could have caused the 774AD space storm? The obvious candidate for such a thing is a very strong solar flareAn explosion on the sun caused when the intense magnetic field lines became entangled and the short circuit reached, Releasing huge explosions of energy and particles. But the 774 event was so powerful that scientists initially doubted it could be from the glow. Once any other kind of astronomical phenomena were ruled out, all that remained was a glow.

A team of scientists peeked through the records to look at other such events Hopefully this flare will be rated compared to other known flares. What they found was that this event was much more powerful than some of the relatively frightening modern flares.

For example, In 1989, the Sun erupted in a powerful series of flares as well as a massive coronal mass ejection (Or CME), in which billions of tons of hydrogen plasma are ejected at high speed. This holds its own magnetic field Space climate Earth’s magnetic field collided, affecting it so deeply that electric currents were induced beneath the Earth’s surface. call Geographically Induced CurrentsThis extra electrical power blew up transformers in Quebec and caused hours of blackouts.

February 1956 was the strongest solar storm in modern times, easily twice the magnitude of the 1989 event. Our power grid wasn’t in heavy use at the time, so it didn’t cause the same kind of damage as the 1989 event, but it was still a mega-event.

Use various methods to describe the 1956 storm, including measurements in visible light, radio waves, and changes in the Earth’s ionosphere (a high-altitude layer of ionized air, which, when rapidly changed, can affect magnetometers on Earth that measure the intensity Magnetic field), and more, they found that the 774AD event was astonishing 30 to 70 times more powerful. This means it is likely 100 times Stronger than 1989.

It is not clear how long the glow lasted; The strongest ones grow and decompose within hours. But the total energy emitted in this glow was roughly the same as the entire Sun radiating out in one second: 2 x 1026 Joules, or the equivalent of about 100 billion bombs weighing one megaton.

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That’s a lot of energy. Enough to power our entire planet (given our current energy use) to 300,000 years.


A glow like this is called a Super glareAnd yet it was not believed that the sun could produce it (Other stars that are more magnetically active often make them). Scientists believe that the 774 glow may have been a special circumstance, in which a strong flare occurred near the gas stream Called filament, Striking it and accelerating the protons in it to such high energies.

This is actually a relief! Better that it’s harder for the sun to do this.

Such an event occurring today would be catastrophic. It could wipe out many satellites – particles and high-energy radiation could shorten even solid electronics – and cause widespread power outages. Fixing this could take a long time, as the larger transformers used by the power grids cannot be produced in large quantities. Some scientists have estimated that passengers on international flights could receive a dose of life-long radiation within a few hours of such an event.

Impacts on the ground can be difficult to quantify; It depends in part on whether the flare and magnetic polarity of CME (the north-south part of the magnetic field) are able to pair with the Earth’s magnetic polarity. If that happens, then we get blackout and other damages. But some effects happen either way.

I will note that we haven’t seen a strong event since 774, although many of them were very strong. The sun erupted in 2012 in a mass coronal ejection that, had it hit Earth, would have been worse than the 1989 event. Thankfully it was sent in another direction.

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But it’s clear that the Sun can have very big tantrums, and we need to take this seriously. Surely solar astronomers do, and as the sun ascends into the latest magnetic cycle, they are looking at our star with everything they have. We don’t know how strong this cycle is. One prediction is that it won’t be a big deal, But Another says it will be too much.

we will see. There is clearly a lot to learn about the sun. It is no exaggeration to say that our modern life depends on it.

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