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Researchers rule out solar flares as source of devastating radiation bursts

The radiation bursts known as "Miyake events" can cause carbon-14 levels on Earth to spike — and would devastate modern civilization.

(CN) — For the last decade, scientists have been aware of a type of radiation burst capable of spiking carbon-14 levels on Earth. These so-called “Miyake events” are a potentially devastating type of astrophysical event that could cause an “internet apocalypse,” damaging both submarine cables and satellites.

However, the nature of Miyake events has long eluded researchers, leading many to assume they must derive from solar flares. According to new research, that hypothesis is wrong.

On Tuesday, researchers from the University of Queensland published their findings on Miyake events in Proceedings of the Royal Society A, showing that such radiation found in tree rings couldn’t come from solar flares, after all.

“Because you can count a tree’s rings to identify its age, you can also observe historical cosmic events going back thousands of years,” Queensland researcher Qingyuan Zhang said in a statement. Zhang is an undergraduate math student who helped lead researcher Benjamin Pope develop a software to analyze carbon-14 remnants in tree rings.

By modeling the global carbon cycle to reconstruct the process over a 10,000-year period, Zhang and Pope found Miyake events are not correlated with sunspot activity, as some events actually lasted one or two years.

“Rather than a single instantaneous explosion or flare, what we may be looking at is a kind of astrophysical ‘storm’ or outburst,” Zhang said.

Named after physicist Fusa Miyake, Miyake Events are said to produce carbon-14 isotopes, which form when highly energetic radiation from space hits atoms in the upper atmosphere to produce neuron. According to Miyake’s 2012 study in Nature, which also analyzed tree rings, such event hit Earth between 774 and 775 AD, causing carbon-14 levels to jump by 1.2% in a year.

“It is also likely that the 774 CE event would have caused [an approximate] 8.5% depletion in global ozone coverage, with a significant but not catastrophic effect on weather,” Pope wrote in the study.

But while the cause of Miyake events is still unknown, what is known is that the radiation burst has occurred approximately once every thousand years, and such an event would be devastating for modern civilization. Pope says the lack of understanding as to how to predict Miyake events is disturbing and warrants further research.

“Based on available data, there’s roughly a one percent chance of seeing another one within the next decade,” Pope said in a statement. “But we don’t know how to predict it or what harms it may cause.”

Pope has an idea, however, of what Miyake events are capable of.

“We need to know more, because if one of these happened today, it would destroy technology including satellites, internet cables, long-distance power lines and transformers,” Pope said. “The effect on global infrastructure would be unimaginable.”

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Categories / Environment, Science

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