Solar Storm Nearly Triggered Nuclear War, Study Finds

     (CN) — A new study has found that research of the sun’s activity may have prevented the United States and the Soviet Union from ending humanity in a nuclear holocaust nearly 50 years ago.
     On May 23, 1967, the U.S. military began preparing for war after surveillance radars in polar regions were being jammed, presumably by the Soviet Union. Officials at the Pentagon operated “in the blind,” attempting to organize a swift and significant military response to the perceived act of aggression.
     Long-range nuclear-armed bombers, already on normal patrols, were supplemented with additional bombers in “ready-to-launch” status as top military and governmental officials debated the ideal response.
     Before President Lyndon Johnson had to make an earth-altering decision, a group of “space weather” forecasters working for the North American Aerospace Defense Command clarified that a power solar storm — not the Soviet Union — had jammed the radars.
     Delores Knipp, a space physicist at the University of Colorado at Boulder and author of the new study, said that Air Force space weather officers with NORAD who explained the situation to military officials may have prevented a fate far worse than the solar flare could have wreaked in 1967.
     “Had it not been for the fact that we had invested very early on in solar and geomagnetic storm observations and forecasting, the impact (of the storm) likely would have been much greater,” Knipp said. “This was a lesson learned in how important it is to be prepared.”
     The U.S. military began monitoring solar activity and space weather in the late 1950s, which helped to detect disturbances in Earth’s magnetic field and upper atmosphere. In the 1960s, a new branch of the Air Force’s Air Weather Service monitored the sun for solar flares — brief eruptions of intense high-energy radiation from the sun’s surface that often lead to electromagnetic disturbances on earth known as geomagnetic storms.
     After an unusually large group of sunspots with intense magnetic fields appeared in one region of the sun, the forecasters saw the sun was active and likely to produce a major flare. A worldwide geomagnetic storm was predicted to occur within the next 36-48 hours, according to a bulletin from NOARD on May 23, 1967.
     The solar event disrupted radars at all three Ballistic Missile Early Warning System sites in the far Northern Hemisphere, which were designed to detect incoming Soviet missiles. An attack on these stations, including attempts to jam their radar capabilities, was considered an act of war.
     Retired Col. Arnold Snyder, a forecaster at NORAD’s Solar Forecast Center, was on duty that day and recalled his interaction with a weather forecaster at NORAD Command Post, who asked about any potential solar activity that might be occurring.
     “I specifically recall responding with excitement, ‘Yes, half the sun has blown away,’ and then related the event details in a calmer, more quantitative way,” he said.
     In addition to the information from the Solar Forecast Center, NORAD learned the three early warning sites were in sunlight and could therefore receive radio emission coming from the sun. This information suggested the radars were being jammed by the sun as opposed to the Soviet Union, Snyder said.
     The jamming subsided as solar radio emissions also faded, further suggesting the sun was the cause.
     The Air Force flew continuous-alert aircraft loaded with nuclear weapons during the 1960s. But commanders requested additional forces in “ready-to-launch” status as they initially misinterpreted the cause of the jamming, according to the study.
     “This is a grave situation. But here’s where the story turns: things were going horribly wrong, and then something goes commendably right,” Knipp said.
     The study’s authors believe information from the Solar Forecasting Center made it to commanders early enough to stop a potential military reaction which likely would have included nuclear weapons. Knipp referenced public documents in noting that information about the solar flares was likely communicated to the highest levels of government, including Johnson.
     The solar storm disrupted U.S. radio communications in almost every possible way for nearly a week, according to the study.
     It was strong enough that the Northern Lights — typically only seen in or near the Arctic Circle — were visible as far south as New Mexico.
     Morris Cohen, a radio scientist at Georgia Institute of Technology who was not involved in the study, underscored the significance of the situation.
     “Oftentimes, the way things work is something catastrophic happens and then we say, ‘We should do something so it doesn’t happen again,'” he said. “But in this case there was just enough preparation done just in time to avert a disastrous result.”

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