In tree rings, Japanese scientists find 8th-century mystery

Jun 04, 2012
Young Japanese walk past a 15-metre-long object made of about 2,000 cedar slices in the Omotesando fashion district in Tokyo in 2004. In the late eighth century, Earth was hit by a mystery blast of cosmic rays, according to a Japanese study that found a relic of the powerful event in cedar trees.

In the late eighth century, Earth was hit by a mystery blast of cosmic rays, according to a Japanese study that found a relic of the powerful event in cedar trees.

Analysis of two ancient trees found a surge in carbon-14 -- a that derives from -- which occurred just in AD 774 and AD 775, the team report in the journal Nature on Sunday.

Earth is battered by protons and other sub-atomic particles which are blasted across space by high-energy sources.

The particles collide with the stratosphere and react with nitrogen to create carbon-14, which is then absorbed into the biosphere.

A team led by Fusa Miyake of Nagoya University found that levels of carbon-14 in the two cedars were about 1.2 percent higher in 774 and 775 compared to other years.

This may not sound much, but in relation to background concentrations of carbon-14, the difference is huge.

One source of is the Sun, whose activity varies in phases called Schwabe cycles. Our star also throws the occasional tantrum, spouting bursts of energy called .

But Miyake's team say that the cosmic whack of 774-775 cannot be attributed to the Schwabe cycle of the time -- and it is far bigger than any known flare from the Sun.

The other possibility is a supernova, or a star that explodes at the end of its life in a welter of .

It burns brightly for a few years before cooling into a remnant that can glow sullenly for centuries.

But there is no documented record in the of a supernova at around 775.

Recent surveys of cosmic radiation show that, at this time, there were the remains of two nearby called A and Vela Jr.

But they were probably too far away or not powerful enough to be responsible for the carbon-14 burst on Earth.

"With our present knowledge, we cannot specify the cause of this event," Miyake admits.

"However, we can say that an extremely energetic event occurred around our space environment in AD 775 ... (but) neither a solar flare nor a local supernova is likely to have been responsible."

The team are delving deeper into the mystery.

They intend to fine-tune the search for the source by looking at telltale traces of beryllium and nitrate isotopes.

They also plan a wider search of historical documents to see if, 1,237 years ago, anyone noted a strange flare in the sky.

Explore further: Image: Grand Canyon geology lessons on view

More information: DOI: 10.1038/nature11123

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HannesAlfven
1 / 5 (3) Jun 04, 2012
It's very important to note that the observation of extremely energetic electrical events impinging upon the Earth can cause problems for the assumption of uniformitarianism (sometimes referred to as gradualism). If we see evidence for potentially catastrophic events, then it is conceivable that we cannot simply use the present as a key to decoding the past. Highly energetic events can in theory exert extremely transformative effects upon the landscape of the planet, over very short time periods, no different than the laboratory processes we observe called electrical machining. Considering that both Alaska and Siberia exhibit large-scale evidence for catastrophe, with the mangled bodies of large mammals mixed in with the mutilated shards of the forests that they lived in, it might be wise for theorists to resume the consideration (as they did in earnest a hundred years ago) of catastrophist inferences for many of the Earth's geologic features.

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