Caught in the Crossfire


Drawing of the Aurora Borealis

Drawing of the Aurora Borealis observed over the Hellespont on 10 September 1569. © Gemma 1575.

July 18, 2012

In June 2012, a team of 4 Japanese researchers revealed in Nature that “an extremely energetic event occurred around our space environment in AD 775.”

An analysis of Japanese cedar trees showed a “rapid increase” in the concentration of radiocarbon for that year, matched by a “sharp peak” in the flux of the 10Beryllium isotope in polar ice for the same period. A cosmic-ray event must be responsible, but the Nagoya scientists categorically dismissed a local supernova as well as a solar flare.

This report poses two pressing questions: what sort of event occurred and do historical documents shed any light on the matter?

Disturbingly, the stern rejection of a solar outburst as a possible mechanism appears to owe more to a hidebound mindset than to critical analysis. Miyake’s group recognised that a solar-proton event (SPE) with an “extremely hard energy spectrum” could “explain simultaneously the 14C and 10Be results, but it would have to be much harder than any flare observed so far”. They conceded that, in fact, “very large, energetic “super flares” have been detected on normal solar-type stars”, but crossed out the idea for their sheer loyalty to the uniformitarian paradigm of a perennially uneventful sun:

“… it is believed that a super flare has never occurred on our Sun, due to the absence of an historical record (such as a record of aurora and mass extinction caused by the expected destruction of the ozone layer) and theoretical expectations.”

Theoretical expectations are, of course, not immutable, but include beliefs that intransigent minds maintain on emotional grounds. As for the ostensible absence of historical precedents to extreme solar storms, Miyake’s team unabashedly chose to gloss over research on the past occurrence of just such storms: the work of Thomas Gold (1963), George Siscoe (1976), Anthony Peratt (2003 to 2011) and Paul LaViolette (2011), the latter even being cited in the paper, presented a plethora of geophysical and archaeological evidence that cannot be simply brushed aside.

A redder flag that all may not be well with Miyake’s analysis is the dearth of historical support for anything unusual in the sky for the years 774 or 775 CE. The best that could be mustered in follow-up discussions was this entry in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, for 776 CE:

“… men saw a red sign of Christ in the heavens after the sun’s setting. In that year the Mercians and the inhabitants of Kent fought at Otford; and snakes were seen extraordinarily in the land of the South Saxons.”

Were these auroral effects? The term used for the “snakes” in Sussex (nædran) suggests that these were actual snakes, nothing like the auroral rays commonly featured in mediaeval chronicles as “dragons in the air”; an example of the latter is the entry for 793 CE in the same Chronicle. Meanwhile, the phrase read Cristes mel is better translated as “a red cross of Christ”. The modern translator of the passage felt that it describes “Presumably some kind of aurora borealis” and this was suggested by at least one earlier scholar, writing to Nature in 1870.

To be sure, the rich phenomenology of the polar aurora does feature the odd cross. Mediaeval texts would refer to such instances as “sulphureous crosses” (cruces sulphureae), a “crucifix” (crucifix), and a “cross” (crux). According to the Dutch physician and astronomer Cornelius Gemma (1535-1578 CE), a red, octagonal cross (cruxrubicunda, octogona), followed by a “white cross, admirable in splendour” (crux alba, splendoris admirandi), appeared over the Hellespont at about 11 pm on 10 September 1569 CE. The simultaneous red coloration of the sky and the formation of an arc over the horizon unambiguously point to an auroral setting.

In the case of 776 CE, one cannot be so certain. If the cross materialised almost directly “after the sun’s setting”, a far likelier candidate is the so-called “solar cross”, an optical-meteorological phenomenon akin to a halo that is seen most often when the sun is close to the horizon. Richard Stothers explains how it is formed:

“Refraction from ice crystals can sometimes produce a white light pillar rising above and extending below the sun. … The light pillar is often accompanied by a horizontal crossbar, another reflection effect. The combined pillar and crossbar yield a light cross, centered on the sun. Thus whenever the halo is invisible, only the cross of light appears.”

Solar crosses of this type are a fairly regular occurrence, especially for people at higher latitudes; if they can appear in red, they would offer a sure-fire explanation of the text.

Had the sun bombarded the earth with an unprecedented volume of plasma in 775 CE, one would reasonably expect far more dramatic human testimony than the meagre results obtained above. Even if the cross reported for 776 CE was auroral, it would still pale in comparison to the energetic event suggested by the analysis of Miyake and his group.

Both in Europe and Asia, mediaeval chronicles were sprinkled with reports of auroral sightings, some of which seem to have been far grander than the gentle cross described so tersely in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle. Miyake’s event rather demands something along the lines of a high-energy density plasma discharge phenomenon such as the “quadrupole” Anthony Peratt modelled for his intense-auroral column – that would have left an unmistakable and indelible global memory of a glorious “sky cross”, as it arguably did long before, in the wake of the last glacial period.

Unless an inspection of Chinese, Japanese or other records unleashes an unexpected torrent of evidence for celestial upheaval in the years concerned, a meticulous cross-examination of Miyake’s research is in order. Were the chemical signatures of the event in wood and ice dated to the very highest degree of confidence or could the chronology be flawed? Alternatively, could the earth’s atmosphere have quietly absorbed massive amounts of radioactive carbon and beryllium without any visible disruption in the heavens?

Whatever the outcome may be, the cavalier and brusque manner in which the possibility of a solar super flare was jettisoned gives forward-looking scientists, from Gold to LaViolette, ample reason to feel cross. An outpouring of fresh insights in the history of this planet and its inhabitants might ensue if some were brave enough to cross the threshold.

Rens Van Der Sluijs

Books by Rens Van Der Sluijs:

Traditional Cosmology: The Global Mythology of Cosmic Creation and Destruction

Volume One: Preliminaries Formation

Volume Two: Functions

Volume Three: Differentiation

Volume Four: Disintegration

The Mythology of the World Axis

The World Axis as an Atmospheric Phenomenon

hat tip to Gerry van Dooren

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