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Scientists examine ancient literature to predict solar flares


John Burger - published on 04/17/17

Ancient Japanese and Chinese texts being studied to help predict dangerous solar events.

If you think literature majors don’t have much of a future outside of teaching, consider this story. Scientists are examining ancient Chinese and Japanese texts to see if they hold clues that could help them predict adverse solar events.

In a 13th-century diary called Meigetsuki, Japanese poet Fujiwara Sadaie mentions seeing red and white vapor in the sky in February 1204. “It was like a distant mountain burning. It was very dreadful,” Sadaie wrote.

What he saw is thought to have been a magnetic storm hitting Earth. Sadaie wasn’t the only one to take note of unusual celestial activity that year. In China, a history of the Song Dynasty recorded a large sunspot, a sign of intense magnetic activity on the sun, during the same period.

And guess what? History and modern scientific techniques are corroborating what the ancient authors wrote. Historian Hisashi Hayakawa found about 10 incidents of prolonged aurorae during this period, according to Science Alert. “When these dates were compared with radiocarbon data from tree rings, we noted decreased levels of carbon-14 (indicating increased levels of solar activity) at these same points,” he said.

Solar flares, which can do a lot of damage to modern infrastructures, do not otherwise leave much of a physical trace, such as a crater left by a large meteor. But scientists are trying to piece together literary evidence like this with other data so that they might begin to see patterns. Reports Science Alert:

“Combining literature, tree ring dating, and space observation, we have uncovered clear patterns in solar activity and astronomical events,” says one of the team, space scientist Hiroaki Isobe from Kyoto University in Japan.

Isobe, who notes that large solar storms can significantly disrupt power grids and satellites, says the insight gained through historical documents “allows us to better predict and prepare for the future.”

These texts have enabled researchers to build up a chronology of space weather activity, and also revealed that auroras were more prevalent in the maximal phase of solar cycles – when the greatest amount of solar activity and irradiance occurs – all of which gives us a slightly better chance of predicting the next magnetic storm.

The work may have that value, especially in a world that is so reliant on electronic technology. It’s also breathing new live into the learning and creation of an earlier age:

Previously, Fujiwara Sadaie’s writings were “not really valued for their scientific specificity” according to Tsuneyo Terashima, Deputy Director at the National Institute of Japanese Literature, who also helped with the study. “We now realize that Meigetsuki in fact provides a lucid and accurate account of celestial conditions of the period.”

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