Atmospheric ionization by high-fluence, hard-spectrum solar proton events and their probable appearance in the ice core archive

Adrian L. Melott, Brian C. Thomas, Claude M. Laird, Ben Neuenswander, Dimitra Atri

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Solar energetic particles ionize the atmosphere, leading to production of nitrogen oxides. It has been suggested that some such events are visible as layers of nitrate in ice cores, yielding archives of energetic, high-fluence solar proton events (SPEs). This has been controversial, due to slowness of transport for these species down from the upper stratosphere; past numerical simulations based on an analytic calculation have shown very little ionization below the midstratosphere. These simulations suffer from deficiencies: they consider only soft SPEs and narrow energy ranges; spectral fits are poorly chosen; and with few exceptions secondary particles in air showers are ignored. Using improved simulations that follow development of the proton-induced air shower, we find consistency with recent experiments showing substantial excess ionization down to 5 km. We compute nitrate available from the 23 February 1956 SPE, which had a high-fluence, hard-spectrum, and well-resolved associated nitrate peak in a Greenland ice core. For the first time, we find that this event can account for ice core data with timely (~2 months) transport downward between 46 km and the surface, thus indicating an archive of high-fluence, hard-spectrum SPEs covering the last several millennia. We discuss interpretations of this result, as well as the lack of a clearly defined nitrate spike associated with the soft-spectrum 3–4 August 1972 SPE. We suggest that hard-spectrum SPEs, especially in the 6 months of polar winter, are detectable in ice cores and that more work needs to be done to investigate this.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)3017-3033
Number of pages17
JournalJournal of Geophysical Research
Issue number6
StatePublished - Mar 27 2016

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Condensed Matter Physics
  • Physical and Theoretical Chemistry
  • Polymers and Plastics
  • Materials Chemistry


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