Powerful solar storm could have sparked a nuclear war in 1967
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.
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