A solar flare on the sun. (NASA)
A solar storm on May 23, 1967 nearly led to nuclear war between the United States and the then-Soviet Union.
Military officials believed disruption of radars caused by a geomagnetic storm was caused by the Soviets.
U.S. Military officials considered any such jamming an act of war.
A powerful solar storm during the Cold War years of the 1960s nearly led to nuclear war, a new study says.
On May 23, 1967, the United States Air Force reportedly scrambled to ready nuclear missile-laden aircraft for deployment after a solar flare disrupted all three of the United States’ early-warning system radars at the same time, putting military officials on edge, according to the study conducted by scientists and military officials and published in Space Weather.
“The aircraft did not launch – we’re pretty certain of that,” lead researcher Delores Knipp of the University of Colorado at Boulder told Gizmodo. “Was war imminent? What we know is that decisions were being made on the tens of minutes to hours basis, and that information got to the right place at the right time to prevent a disaster.”
Radar systems designed to detect incoming Soviet missiles were put out of commission by the powerful geomagnetic storm coming from the sun, the study learned. These storms can disrupt radio communication and power line transmission. Military officials believed for a brief time that the Soviets had been able to jam radar signals and considered any such move an act of war.
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America’s brand-new Solar Forecasting Center was able to determine the true cause of the disruptions just in the nick of time and avoid what might have become World War III, the study also said.
“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,” said Knipp. “This was a lesson learned in how important it is to be prepared.”
While the May 1967 solar event is considered one of the most significant solar storms of the past century, the researchers note that little academic attention had been paid to the event. Knipp and her fellow researchers set out to examine the implications of what another powerful solar storm like the one in 1967 might mean for today’s “radio-reliant, cellular-phone and satellite-navigation-enabled world.”
While researching reports from the era, Knipp and her team began speaking to retired U.S. Air Force officials to learn how the event affected the military. That’s when news of the near-nuclear “retaliation” came to light.
Knipp noted that one of the long-lasting outcomes of the storm was “more formal Department of Defense support for current-day space weather forecasting.”
“The role of Air Force SESS personnel was critical in maintaining the well-being of the nation and the world as the May 1967 storm unfolded,” said Knipp in the paper. “Further, the May 1967 space weather events created a cascade of important decisions and studies that have contributed to the field of Space Weather as we know it, thus providing information to system engineers, and decision- and policy-makers at many levels, even today.”
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