A study from the University of Queensland has shed new light on a type of mysterious, unpredictable and potentially devastating astrophysical event.
A team led by Dr Benjamin Pope from UQ’s School of Mathematics and Physics has applied cutting-edge statistics to millennial tree data to learn more about radiation ‘storms’.
“These huge bursts of cosmic radiation, known as Miyake events, have happened about once every thousand years, but what causes them is unclear,” said Dr Pope.
“The main theory is that these are huge solar flares. We need to know more because if one happened today it would destroy technology including satellites, cables Internet, long distance power lines and transformers. The effect on global infrastructure would be unimaginable.”
Enter the humble ring of trees.
First author Qingyuan Zhang, an undergraduate mathematics student at UQ, has developed software to analyze all available data on tree rings.
“Because you can count the rings of a tree to identify its age, you can also observe historical cosmic events dating back thousands of years,” Zhang said. “When radiation hits the atmosphere, it produces radioactive carbon-14, which filters through air, oceans, plants and animals, and produces an annual record of radiation in tree rings. We modeled the global carbon cycle to reconstruct the process over a period of 10,000 years, to gain insight into the scale and nature of the Miyake events.”
The common theory so far was that the Miyake events are giant solar flares.
“But our results call that into question,” Zhang said. “We’ve shown that they don’t correlate with sunspot activity, and some actually last for a year or two. Rather than a single instantaneous burst or eruption, what we can observe is a kind of ‘storm. “or astrophysical explosion.”
Dr Pope said the fact that scientists don’t know exactly what the Miyake events are, or how to predict their occurrence, is very troubling.
“Based on the available data, there’s about a 1% chance of seeing another in the next decade. But we don’t know how to predict it or what damage it may cause. These probabilities are pretty alarming and lay the groundwork for further research,” he concluded.
The research is published in Proceedings of the Royal Society Aand was made with the help of undergraduate math and physics students Utkarsh Sharma and Jordan Dennis.
Analysis of Tree Rings Reveals Highly Anomalous Solar Activity in the Mid-Holocene
Modeling cosmic ray events in the tree ring radiocarbon record, Proceedings of the Royal Society A: Mathematical and Physical Sciences (2022). DOI: 10.1098/rspa.2022.0497. royalsocietypublishing.org/doi….1098/rspa.2022.0497
Provided by the University of Queensland
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