Science

Powerful solar storm could have sparked a nuclear war in 1967

Powerful solar storm could hav...
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
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According to a new study accepted for publication in the journal Space Weather, the US was taken to the brink of war with the Soviet Union in 1967, when a powerful solar storm wreaked havoc with early warning systems designed to detect incoming Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles. The drama unfolded with a backdrop of extreme Cold War tensions, and a proliferation of nuclear weapons brought about by the doctrine of mutually 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 event of a nuclear strike. Any attempt to jam or disrupt this system would have been treated as an act of war.

In the late 1950s, the US military began monitoring our Sun in order to detect solar events that create electromagnetic interference capable of disrupting radio communications and power line transmissions. These disturbances are known to follow in the wake of powerful solar flares. Electromagnetic disturbances occur as stellar material cast out during a flare event interacts with Earth's magnetosphere, creating a geomagnetic storm.

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

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

The geomagnetic storm resulting from the solar flare struck Earth some 40 hours later, effectively rendering three BMEWS located in the far Northern Hemisphere inoperable. Assuming that the disruption was the prelude to a potential nuclear strike from the Soviet Union, US military commanders readied additional aircraft to supplement the 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 information from its Solar Forecast Center as to any potential solar activity that could be influencing the military assets. NORAD was informed as to the extent of the storm, and discovered that the three BMEWS experiencing the jamming had a direct line of sight with the Sun, and so could have been overwhelmed by the interference created by our star. It later became apparent that, as the geomagnetic storm began to subside, so too did the jamming effect disrupting the early warning system.

Individuals behind the study, including retired military personnel tasked with analyzing the storm in 1967, believe that information from the Solar Forecast Center could have been passed up the chain of command straight to the desk of then President Lyndon B. Johnson. The authors assert that this information was instrumental in preventing further military action over the course of the jamming incident, which could conceivably have led to a nuclear exchange between the US and the Soviet Union.

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

Source: American Geophysical Union

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4 comments
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'.