The danger of a Miyake event: a latent threat to humanity

solar flare

The universe is a very hostile environment, every second the Earth is bombarded by billions of highly energetic particles that threaten our electrical equipment. However, records in tree rings indicate that our greatest threat in the short term could come from the Sun, which is essential for life and could cause a collapse in civilization, in an event called the Miyake event.

shutterstock 138195971 e1575492812271 scaled 1
Digital artistic recreation of the Earth and the Sun.

Trees record history

This type of event gets its name from an article published in 2012 where the lead author is Fusa Miyake from the Solar-Terrestrial Environment Laboratory at Nagoya University in Japan. In this study they analyzed the concentration of a Carbon isotope in the trunks of the Cedar tree, more specifically 14, which has 2 more neutrons than Carbon 12, which corresponds to more than 90% of Carbon on Earth. The ratio of C14 and C12 is directly related to solar activity and the amount of cosmic rays.

tree trunks dendrochronology
Sample of the rings of a tree, the thickness and color of each one of them shows rainy or drought seasons. More detailed investigations allow detailed knowledge of local conditions.

During periods of rain and drought in trees, the growth of the trunk adopts different rhythms, leaving behind ring-like structures that allow us to know its age and, in addition, create a record of the conditions it experienced in those times.. Thanks to this, evidence has been found of up to three considerable increases in the amount of C14 that cannot be explained by the known behavior of the Sun. Furthermore, it has been compared with records of Beryllium 10 in Antarctic ice, also showing peaks in relative abundance of this isotope.

From the comparison between tree ring data from North America, Europe and Japan, it is possible to reach the conclusion that a global-scale event occurred in the years 785 and 995 BC.. Although it is not absolutely certain what could have caused it.

In search of the person responsible

There are three main candidates that could have bombarded the Earth with large amounts of radiation and proliferated C14 production in the upper atmosphere. The first of them is a nearby supernova, a massive star at the end of its life where it violently expels its outer layers at high speed.; However, records of supernovae and detections of remnants indicate that there was no such event on the dates in question, allowing this possibility to be ruled out.

Keplers supernova
Photograph taken by the Hubble Space Telescope of the remnant of Supernova 1604 or Kepler Supernova. These are the remains of the last death of a star that could be visible from Earth with the naked eye.

Another alternative is a GBR; a burst or burst of gamma rays, for its acronym in English, which would not leave an observable trace as it has a duration of less than 5 seconds and is only a large emission of very energetic light. Some studies have shown that an event of this caliber could explain the amounts of C14 detected, However, these types of gusts are very rare and may not have occurred in the interval studied.

The last and most tempting candidate is a solar proton event, where a large burst of protons is fired from the Sun at high velocities that could have intercepted the Earth and induced the increase in the flux of C14 and Be10. Computational models show that this could explain the increase in the proportion of Carbon, but this would require an intensity between thirty and fifty times greater than the event detected in 1956.

The Sun: a sleeping volcano

Assuming that what was recorded in the tree rings was a solar proton event, humanity is under constant risk of being hit by the intense jet of highly energetic particles. It is unknown exactly under what conditions these events occur, as well as the relationship with solar activity, and remains an open question that is expected to be answered by the different solar observatories on land and in space. Like a dormant volcano, the Sun could activate one of these high-intensity events at any moment.

Now, once the possible cause of these detections is known, it is worth thinking about the consequences of the Earth being hit by a Miyake event. For this, it is necessary to remember that these particles have great energy, which when colliding with a machine can alter the constituent atoms and seriously affect the integrity of sensitive parts such as electronics, as in a satellite outside the atmosphere.. But when they collide with the high layers of ozone, the energetic protons cause what is called a cascade of particles, which can also affect all electrical systems and damage them to the point of complete loss.

SDO Shows the First Moments of an X Class Flare
Photographs of a class C solar call at different wavelengths on February 24, 2014. These types of events, but with greater intensity, pose an enormous risk to electrical systems in and around the Earth.

A global catastrophe

The modern world relies heavily on computers, whether from the TV remote control, car keys or a computer to large company servers, banking infrastructures and global communication. The impact on all of these at the same time would be a very strong blow to the civilization that has been built over the last century.

Direct damage to communication systems would mean an almost total collapse of other areas such as banks, food transportation and emergency response. This in turn would lead to a lack of control on the part of people, causing even more damage and aggravating the situation due to fear.

Map of the system of submarine cables that make up the Internet and allow rapid data transfer, avoiding signal delay caused by satellite systems.

In the event of a Miyake event, the global electrical system would be seriously affected, leaving entire cities without power to function properly.. People would be trapped in elevators, refrigerated food would rot because it could not be kept at low temperatures, and Hospital systems, once they used up their reserves using generators, would leave hundreds of patients defenseless who depend on equipment to survive.

How to avoid an industrial, social and economic catastrophe

Given the serious consequences of a Miyake event that directly affects our telecommunications and electricity infrastructure, it is necessary to reinforce or generate redundant systems that can be recovered in a short time. The first step is to understand and be able to predict the latent risk that threatens us, and this requires greater surveillance and exhaustive study of the Sun.

On the other hand, an independent ecosystem must be created to facilitate repairs and replace the affected equipment in the shortest time, so that part of the operating capacity can be recovered quickly and basic needs can be met. For this, redundancies are needed in the electrical and telecommunications systems that allow working in areas independently.

Francisco Andrés Forero Daza