Nature

A huge solar storm nearly sparked a nuclear war between the United States and Russia


In May 1967, a solar storm brought the world to the brink of what could have been a nuclear war. As the sun now enters a period of heightened activity as part of its 11-year solar cycle, experts have debated whether or not we should be wary of a second such incident.

The world was in the grip of the Cold War in 1967 when the sun spewed out one of the largest solar storms ever seen at the time, releasing a colossal radio burst that interfered with communications services here on Earth.

The US military was immediately troubled by this radio interference on its radar system, which it interpreted as a deliberate jamming attempt by a foreign adversary. Such a move could have been seen as a potential act of war, with the United States operating a radar-based early-warning missile detection system to defend against the Soviet Union.

Fortunately, a disaster never happened. The US Air Force had expanded its space weather analysis capabilities and forecasters were successful in intervening, convincing decision makers that the sun was likely the culprit before rash commands were issued, but not before the bombers be ready to take off.

The sun can trigger powerful flares that interfere with electronics on Earth, an example of such a flare occurred in 1967 when a massive solar storm nearly sparked a nuclear war between the United States and Russia. Pictured is a photo of the sun taken by the Solar and Heliospheric Observatory in November 2003.
NASA/Getty

A 2016 report on the event, published in the journal Space weathersaid Colonel CK Anderson and his solar forecast team were credited with providing information that “finally calmed the nerves and allowed the aircraft engines to cool off as they returned to alert position normal… it seems that unlike some of the events of human error and miscommunication in the 1970s, the bombers were not flying away but were positioned to do so nonetheless.”

The storm that led to this incident was reportedly measured as a Class G5 extreme storm on the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Geomagnetic Storm Scale, the strongest type.

The 2016 report says the 1967 storm led to more formal support for current space weather forecasting, which now involves sun-peering satellites, enabling accurate forecasts of solar flares and other potentially disruptive flares. Even so, is a repeat of the military confusion of 1967 possible today?

Morris Cohen, associate professor of electrical and computer engineering at Georgia Tech and chair of the Atmospheric and Space Electricity Section of the American Geophysical Union, said Newsweek he thinks it is “highly unlikely” that a solar flare would lead to an ill-informed military attack today given developments in space weather technology since then.

“Even in 1967, when our awareness of space weather was in its infancy, the problem that nearly led to a fake attack was not on the side of science, it was in the military chain of command and the use of this scientific information,” he said.

“We already had enough insight to see that a solar flare had occurred, which immediately gave a very different interpretation of this communications blackout,” Cohen added. “The question was whether the nuclear chain of command was aware of this information, and fortunately at the time it was, but perhaps barely.”

The point was echoed by Mathew Owens, professor of space physics in the Department of Meteorology at the University of Reading. He said Newsweek“Awareness of space weather has increased dramatically over the past 50 years. For example, the US Air Force and Naval Research Laboratories are undertaking cutting-edge space weather research themselves. So I guess the risk has decreased significantly on that front.”

However, he added that the 1967 incident “highlights one important thing: the timing and context of a space weather event is at least as important as the physics”.

Cohen identified a few situations in which space weather could “simulate” a military attack. One would be if communications were taken offline by a solar flare like in 1967. Another would be if a strong solar flare called a coronal mass ejection (CME) were to knock out power grids. A third could be if signals from GPS satellites were destabilized, which could have effects on financial transactions and mobile phone networks.

Although the chances of military confusion caused by a solar flare have diminished over the decades, solar activity is not without danger. “One of the main concerns is the broad reliance on radio signals across the spectrum,” said Delores Knipp, research professor and member of the American Meteorological Society and co-author of a 2016 report. on the 1967 event. Newsweek.

“The sun has proven to be very capable of sending out bursts of radio interference. In 2006 there was a radio burst that swamped almost every sunlit GPS receiver for tens of minutes. Many Efforts have been made to alleviate this problem.”

“Perhaps efforts to deny radio access and pass off this interference as a solar event are perhaps a bigger concern,” she added.


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