In September 1859, when Japan was in the final decade of the Tokugawa Shogunate (1603-1867), an eerie glow was sighted in various parts of the country.

A contemporary record of the event in the Kinki districts reads: "A strange phenomenon lingered, turning the clouds red in the northern sky. It is rumored that about 1,000 homes burned down." The glow must have resembled a major fire in a remote spot.

According to a monograph co-authored by Hisashi Hayakawa and Kiyomi Iwahashi, the writer of a report in the Tohoku district surmised, "Perhaps a fire has broken out somewhere in Russia."

The cause of that strange phenomenon was a solar flare, a giant explosion on the surface of the sun. It released electrically charged particles that reached Earth, generating auroras that glowed red in Japan.

Around the same time, telegraph systems failed in Europe and the United States. Telegraphic instruments burst into flames, causing fires at multiple locations. This solar event was sufficiently powerful to affect the state-of-the-art telecommunication infrastructure of the time.

The monster solar flares that occurred earlier this week raised concerns about potential damage to communication satellites and GPS. Thankfully, no major damage has been reported so far, which suggests the solar flares were not as severe as feared. Still, I was awed by the sun's potential menace.

Some experts warn about the possible occurrence of gigantic solar explosions known as super flares.

Kazunari Shibata, a foremost astrophysicist, points out in his publications that such an event may not only render television and the Internet useless, but also cause nuclear power stations to lose electricity.

The probability of its occurrence is every 800 to 5,000 years, warns Shibata. This is certainly not to be taken lightly.

The sun nurtures vegetation and keeps animals alive. And light, heat and energy are also provided by the sun.

Will the sun continue to protect our planet? We humans know so little of the history of this heavenly body that was born 4.6 billion years ago.

--The Asahi Shimbun, Sept. 9

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Vox Populi, Vox Dei is a popular daily column that takes up a wide range of topics, including culture, arts and social trends and developments. Written by veteran Asahi Shimbun writers, the column provides useful perspectives on and insights into contemporary Japan and its culture.