Forrest Scene

December 2012 News Releases

Washburn's Thomas builds case for major solar event in year 775

Brian Thomas, associate professor of physics and astronomy at Washburn University, calls his latest collaboration “a nice example of how science is supposed to work.”  

Thomas and Adrian Melott, a physics and astronomy professor at the University of Kansas, found something in a journal article earlier this year and got to work. A group of Japanese scientists discovered in tree samples a spike in the amount of Carbon-14 in the atmosphere in the years 774 and 775. They went on to theorize its cause and ruled out a solar event based on their calculations.  

Thomas and Melott noticed that those calculations assumed the solar event, a coronal mass ejection, would emit energy evenly in every direction from the sun. But that’s not how the complicated energy bursts at the sun’s surface actually work, Thomas said.  

In their response to the work of those Japanese scientists, which appears in the November online edition of Nature as a “brief communication arising,” Thomas and Melott show that it is plausible that a coronal mass ejection is responsible for the large increase in Carbon-14 that was discovered to have occurred in the Eighth Century.  

“Science is very self-correcting, I would say,” Thomas said. The Japanese scientists discovered the Carbon-14 spike. Thomas and Melott believe that spike could have been caused by an event at the surface of the sun. That provides one more data point and further opportunity for study related to prediction and preparedness for future solar events.  

“What we can say is that given our estimates, this coronal mass ejection is something like 20-times the largest that’s happened in recent times,” said Thomas, who did the calculations for the response Melott and he wrote. The largest known event, in 1859, caused significant geomagnetic storms and disabled portions of the telegraph system in addition to other environmental effects.  

A coronal mass ejection, or solar flare, of the intensity needed to create a Carbon-14 spike of the magnitude discovered by the Japanese scientists would have major consequences today, Thomas said. Effects could include damage to the ozone layer, increased skin cancer rates, multiple years of damaged crops and decimation of global electrical, satellite and telecommunications grids.  

A coronal mass ejection of that intensity “didn’t match what had occurred before,” Thomas said. One group of scientists ruled it out as a possibility and “we brought it back into the plausible range.”  


Brian L. Thomas, physics and astronomy, 785-670-2144
Michaela Saunders, university relations, 785-670-2154