A massive solar storm nearly provoked a nuclear war during the Cold War, when all US radio and radar communications in the Arctic had been stopped.
In 1967, the US Air Force started to prepare for war because they thought that the Soviet Union was jamming the surveillance radars from the Arctic. The action was interrupted by the military space weather forecasters, which explained that the disturbance in communication was caused by a solar storm.
“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. This was a lesson learned in how important it is to be prepared,” said Delores Knipp, a space physicist at the University of Colorado.
The author of the study explains that the study benefited from the support of retired US Air Force officers. The team worked together to understand the consequences of the military decisions and the importance of space research and geoscience to national security.
Solar storms are outbursts of radiation on the sun’s surface. The jets of electrons, atoms and ions are sent into space and reach the Earth in two days.
The radiations are stopped by our planet’s atmosphere, and they are not physically harmful to humans. However, they have intense effects on satellite communications.
The solar storm occurred starting with the 18th of May 1967, when intense magnetic fields were observed around the spots of the Sun. The researchers from the North American Aerospace Defense Command predicted a flare, and the event eventually occurred on the 23rd of May.
The flare produced significant dysfunctions to the three Ballistic Missile Early Warning System sites in the Northern Hemisphere. The military devices were used to monitor Soviet missiles. Therefore, when the US Air Force observed the disturbance in the surveillance system, their first thought was that the Soviets were starting an attack and jammed the radars to take them by surprise.
After the radars had got disturbed, the US Air Force commanders sent additional aircraft equipped with nuclear weapons that were ready to launch. The military was on alert.
The space experts had to inform commanders that the three surveillance sites were in direct sunlight and therefore had been exposed to solar radiation, which in turn made them stop functioning correctly.
The clarification is just an example of how an efficient communication between scientists and the government can lead to positive outcomes, and even prevent dangerous and irreversible actions.
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