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The most violent solar storm that struck the earth occurred 2600 years ago

Scientists have found evidence of the extreme event that took place in 660 BC – and warn us that we will not be ready if something of this magnitude happens again

A. J. Oliveira


March 14, 2019, 7:37 PM

The sun is a bit like a roller coaster. There are ups and downs. At certain times you are reasonably comfortable; in others it has intense activity, with explosions throwing large amounts of high energy particles through the solar system. If the earth is in the middle of the road, there are so-called solar storms. For the past 70 years, scientists have been monitoring these events in real time. The most violent of them has just been discovered: it happened in the past, more than 2600 years ago.

An international team led by researchers from the University of Lund in Sweden analyzed samples of ice cream collected in Greenland. They contain material that has been formed over the past 100,000 years – and keep records of previous solar storms. In the study, published last Monday in the journal PNAS, scientists describe the discovery of a very violent solar storm that occurred in the year 660 BC.

At the time, democracy was not yet invented in Athens, in ancient Greece. Further research showed that similar phenomena occurred in the 775 and 994 years of the Christian era, but none of them with such intensity. Even though it happened a long time ago, the solar megatempestade, the third person indirectly documented by evidence in nature, causes researchers concern.

"If it happened today, the consequences would be serious in our high-tech society," said geologist Raimund Muscheler, one of the authors of the article, in a statement. While this is not a direct threat to our lives, these events are bad for technologies on which we are very dependent. Electric network, communication systems, satellites, air traffic: all this and more can be affected by the very high energy particles released during a solar storm.

In recent times, these phenomena have caused blackouts in Quebec, Canada (1989) and Malmö, Sweden (2003). If small episodes do great damage, something with the proportion of what happened in 660 BC would be a real disaster. And, according to the researchers, we are not technologically prepared to deal with it.

"Our research suggests that risks are currently underestimated, we need to prepare better," says Muscheler. As the history itself tells us, sooner or later the Sun will send major storms in our direction. Now that we know more about the dangers, science will try to find ways to protect our civilization against these superstorms.

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