Scientists link a solar storm with observations by Assyrian Astronomers

Around the year 660 BC, astronomers from the Assyrian Empire saw the sky turn ominously red.

Observations by Assyrian Astronomers.
Observations by Assyrian Astronomers.

They wrote their observations in cuneiform writing on clay tablets. Now Japanese astronomers have linked the observations on these ancient documents to a solar storm.

In the Assyrian Empire, which existed between 2000 BC and 609 BC in what we now call the Middle East, astronomers were already observing the universe. 

Often those astronomers were trained people who, by order of the king, made astrological predictions by means of heavenly signs. They wrote their observations in cuneiform writing on clay tablets. Some of these clay tablets have been preserved.

A team of Japanese astronomers, led by Hisashi Hayakawa from Osaka University, has now studied clay tablets from the seventh century BC. Among the 389 astrological accounts that the researchers looked at, there were three interesting clay tablets that they called R1, R2 and R3.

The red glow

R1, R2 and R3, which were made between 679 and 655 BC, contain special observations of astronomers from the Assyrian Empire. Translated from cuneiform script to contemporary language, these clay tablets contain descriptions of 'red glow', 'red cloud' and 'red sky', which may indicate a former solar storm.

In an earlier study, by dating the radioactive decay of the carbon-14 isotope in tree rings, evidence had already been provided for a massive solar storm that took place around 660 B.C. With the newly researched descriptions on clay tablets, the Japanese team claims that there was indeed a huge solar storm at that time.

Also in case of volcanic eruptions

Professor John Steele of Brown University in Providence, USA, specialising in Babylonian astronomy, finds the Japanese researchers' conclusion plausible. Especially the descriptions of 'red glow' are convincing, he says. This terminology is relatively common, even in later descriptions.

Professor of astrophysics Christoph Keller of Leiden University also finds the descriptions of a red sky from that period interesting. This is even more so because it is clear, based on the earlier carbon-14 research, that something important happened at the same time. 

Yet, unlike Steele, Keller is also skeptical about the attribution of the descriptions to a solar storm. During volcanic eruptions, the sky can also turn red,' he says.

Visible from the Middle East

Solar storms are explosive events on the surface of the sun, in which the sun hurls enormous amounts of radiation and charged particles into the universe with solar flares and plasma clouds. 

Sometimes these events are so intense that they can be observed from Earth. If the Japanese researchers are right, this was also the case with the solar storm around 660 BC, which made the sky turn red.

In the present time, solar storms can only be seen from the poles; a good example of this is the aurora. But around 660 BC the situation was different. 

The current Middle East was closer to the northern geomagnetic pole than it is now. As a result, the solar storms may have been visible from this area.

What would happen if a solar storm hit Earth?
What would happen if a solar storm hit Earth?

Why Solar flares are dangerous?

With the increasing dependence of our society on electronics and technology, the problems of solar storms are becoming increasingly obvious.

In 1859 there was an enormous solar storm, also known as the Carrington Event, leading to significant problems affecting telegraphy, which at the time was the way to send messages over long distances.

A solar storm of the same intensity that reaches the earth would disrupt our present society even more with widespread electrical interference and power failure. 

With the mapping of solar storms that took place in the past, we can hopefully predict in the future when we will have to deal with them and protect our vulnerable electronic equipment from them in time.