Greenland ice cores reveal signs of solar super-storm 3,000 years ago

Scientists warn ‘we need to be better prepared’ for powerful space weather events as study on Greenland ice cores finds signs of three solar SUPER-STORMS in the last 3,000 years

  • Evidence emerged from a study of 100,000-year-old ice-cores from Greenland
  • Researchers spotted the signs of a huge solar storm that occurred in 660 BC 
  • Also confirmed two other massive storms that struck Earth in 775 and 994 AD
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Three solar ‘super-storms’ bigger than anything recorded in recent history have occurred in the last 3,000 years, scientists have discovered.

A similar event today could have a highly destructive effect on power grids, communications, GPS systems and information technology, warn scientists.

Solar storms are made up of high energy particles unleashed by explosions on the sun.

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Three solar ‘super-storms’ bigger than anything recorded in recent history have occurred in the last 3,000 years, scientists have discovered. Artist’s impression 

The fast moving charged particles can wipe out sensitive satellite circuits and cause surges in electricity grids, triggering widespread power cuts.

Two severe solar storms in modern times caused extensive power cuts in Quebec, Canada, in 1989 and Malmo, Sweden, in 2003.

But these events were dwarfed by a solar storm that occurred in 660 BC.

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.’

Evidence for the solar super-storm emerged from a study of 100,000-year-old ice-cores from Greenland.

Further research using both ice-cores and growth rings in old trees confirmed two other massive solar storms that struck the Earth in 775 and 994 AD.

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Big solar storms, while rare, appear to be a naturally recurring effect, said the researchers, writing in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

‘That’s why we must increase society’s protection against solar storms,’ said Prof Muscheler.

‘Our research suggests that the risks are currently underestimated. We need to be better prepared.’


Solar storms, or solar activity, can be divided into four main components that can have impacts on Earth:  

  • Solar flares: A large explosion in the sun’s atmosphere. These flares are made of photons that travel out directly from the flare site. Solar flares impact Earth only when they occur on the side of the sun facing Earth.  
  • Coronal Mass Ejections (CME’s): Large clouds of plasma and magnetic field that erupt from the sun. These clouds can erupt in any direction, and then continue on in that direction, plowing through solar wind. These clouds only cause impacts to Earth when they’re aimed at Earth. 
  • High-speed solar wind streams: These come from coronal holes on the sun, which form anywhere on the sun and usually only when they are closer to the solar equator do the winds impact Earth. 
  • Solar energetic particles: High-energy charged particles thought to be released primarily by shocks formed at the front of coronal mass ejections and solar flares. When a CME cloud plows through solar wind, solar energetic particles can be produced and because they are charged, they follow the magnetic field lines between the Sun and Earth. Only charged particles that follow magnetic field lines that intersect Earth will have an impact. 

While these may seem dangerous, astronauts are not in immediate danger of these phenomena because of the relatively low orbit of manned missions.

However, they do have to be concerned about cumulative exposure during space walks.

This photo shows the sun’s coronal holes in an x-ray image. The outer solar atmosphere, the corona, is structured by strong magnetic fields, which when closed can cause the atmosphere to suddenly and violently release bubbles or tongues of gas and magnetic fields called coronal mass ejections

The damage caused by solar storms 

Solar flares can damage satellites and have an enormous financial cost.

The charged particles can also threaten airlines by disturbing Earth’s magnetic field.

Very large flares can even create currents within electricity grids and knock out energy supplies.

When Coronal Mass Ejections strike Earth they cause geomagnetic storms and enhanced aurora.

They can disrupt radio waves, GPS coordinates and overload electrical systems.

A large influx of energy could flow into high voltage power grids and permanently damage transformers.

This could shut off businesses and homes around the world. 

Source: NASA – Solar Storm and Space Weather 

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