Science

Powerful solar storm could have sparked a nuclear war in 1967

Image on the Sun captured on May 23, 1967
Image on the Sun captured on May 23, 1967
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Image on the Sun captured on May 23, 1967
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Image on the Sun captured on May 23, 1967
Communication regarding the onset of the powerful May 23, 1967 geomagnetic storm
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Communication regarding the onset of the powerful May 23, 1967 geomagnetic storm
Following the flare, sightings of the Northern Lights were documented as far south as New Mexico
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Following the flare, sightings of the Northern Lights were documented as far south as New Mexico
Notes regarding the sunspots that emerged prior to the solar flare event on May 23, 1967
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Notes regarding the sunspots that emerged prior to the solar flare event on May 23, 1967
Image of the sunspots that emerged prior to the May 23, 1967 solar flare event
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Image of the sunspots that emerged prior to the May 23, 1967 solar flare event

According to a new study accepted forpublication in the journal Space Weather, the US was takento the brink of war with the Soviet Union in 1967, when a powerfulsolar storm wreaked havoc with early warning systems designed todetect incoming Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles. The dramaunfolded with a backdrop of extreme Cold War tensions, and aproliferation of nuclear weapons brought about by the doctrine ofmutually assured destruction.

Over the course of the 1960s, the US relied on the Ballistic Early Warning System (BMEWS),which, operated by the North American Aerospace Defence Command(NORAD), was tasked with providing a 15-minute warning in the eventof a nuclear strike. Any attempt to jam or disrupt this system wouldhave been treated as an act of war.

In the late 1950s, the US militarybegan monitoring our Sun in order to detect solar events that createelectromagnetic interference capable of disrupting radiocommunications and power line transmissions. These disturbances areknown to follow in the wake of powerful solar flares. Electromagneticdisturbances occur as stellar material cast out during a flare eventinteracts with Earth's magnetosphere, creating a geomagnetic storm.

In the 1960s, the US Air Forceestablished the Air Weather Service (AWS), which, via a network ofobservers distributed both in the US and abroad, kept NORADappraised of any potentially hazardous space weather events. By 1967,several observatories were reporting to NORAD on a daily basis.

On May 18, 1967, astronomers detecteda large group of sunspots mottling a region of the Sun's surface.Then, on May 23, observatories in New Mexico and Colorado observed anenormous flare, coupled with an unprecedented increase in radio waveemissions from our Sun.

The geomagnetic storm resulting fromthe solar flare struck Earth some 40 hours later, effectivelyrendering three BMEWS located in the farnorthern hemisphere inoperable. Assuming that the disruptionwas the prelude to a potential nuclear strike from the Soviet Union,US military commanders readied additional aircraft to supplementthe USAF's nuclear bomb wielding alert aircraft.

Notes regarding the sunspots that emerged prior to the solar flare event on May 23, 1967
Notes regarding the sunspots that emerged prior to the solar flare event on May 23, 1967

Thankfully, NORAD requested informationfrom its Solar Forcast Center as to any potential solar activity thatcould be influencing the military assets. NORAD was informed as tothe extent of the storm, and discovered that the three BMEWSexperiencing the jamming had a direct line of sight with the Sun, andso could have been overwhelmed by the interference created by ourstar. It later became apparent that, as the geomagnetic storm beganto subside, so too did the jamming effect disrupting the earlywarning system.

Individuals behind the study, includingretired military personnel tasked with analyzing the storm in 1967,believe that information from the Solar Forecast Center could havebeen passed up the chain of command straight to the desk of thenPresident Lyndon B. Johnson. The authors assert that this informationwas instrumental in preventing further military action over thecourse of the jamming incident, which could conceivably have led to anuclear exchange between the US and the Soviet Union.

The effects of the storm went on towreak havoc with US radio communications for nearly a week, andcaused the Northern Lights, which can usually only be observed in theArctic Circle, to be visible as far south as New Mexico.

Source: American Geophysical Union

4 comments
Mel Tisdale
At least in those days it was possible for a nuclear exchange to have escalated slowly, allowing time for wiser counsels to prevail. Today the primary weapon in NATO's arsenal, Trident D5, is, thanks initially to one James Schlesinger and later to Ronald Reagan, a counterforce weapon. At the first hint of trouble, even if it is only the misreading of a solar flare, as is the case here, the only winning strategy it to launch one's fleet before the incoming arrive. Why? The incoming attack will be targeted at your C cubed I (command, control, communication and intelligence) facilities in order to prevent a retaliation. It is called a pre-emptive first-strike (though a better name would be 'anti-deterrent). I don't know the capabilities of Russia's submarine based missiles, but it cannot be long, if it isn't already the case, that we have both major nuclear states operating on a hair-trigger. Oh, hum! Mind you, the resulting nuclear winter will do wonders for the overpopulation problem.
Robert in Vancouver
Mel, the Trident D5 is designed for use only after an incoming missile has been detected and confirmed. Our systems can easily distinguish between an incoming missle and a solar flare. Your fears are groundless, but commonly held by those on the left.
Mel Tisdale
Robo, now put yourself in Putin's place and ask yourself what he would believe: That what you say is the case, or what Trident D5 is known to be capable of.
Paxman
Google 'Hiroshima Nagasaki jesuit nukes hoax'.