The US Air Force leadership, which was unaware of the upcoming solar storm, assumed that it was the USSR that disabled their radar systems, and therefore alerted aircraft equipped with nuclear weapons.
The fact that the weather on the Sun affects the operation of technology on Earth has been known for a long time. For example, as early as September 1859, a geomagnetic storm caused by a coronal mass ejection brought down the telegraph systems of Europe and North America. However, the activity of the Sun can not only shake the operation of systems on Earth but also cause preparations for the start of hostilities.
Monitoring solar activity
The US Air Force began monitoring solar activity and space weather—disturbances in the Earth’s magnetic field and upper atmosphere—on a regular basis in the late 1950s. In the 60s, units created by the US Air Force tracked solar flares – explosive processes of energy release in the atmosphere of the Sun. It is they that lead to disturbances in the magnetic field of our planet and can lead to disruption of radio communications and to failures in the transmission of electricity through power lines.
These units hired observers throughout the United States and beyond, who regularly reported “sunny weather forecasts” to the North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD), the joint US-Canadian aerospace defense system. By 1967, several observatories were sending information directly there daily.
The US almost started a war due to an unannounced solar flare
On May 18, 1967, an unusually large group of dark spots with powerful magnetic fields appeared in one of the regions of the Sun. By May 23, observers and forecasters noticed that the star had increased its activity and prepared for a big flare.
Indeed, observatories in New Mexico and Colorado soon registered a flash that could be seen with the naked eye, and an observatory in Massachusetts reported that the sun was emitting an unusually large amount of radio waves. A large geomagnetic storm was expected on Earth in 36-48 hours.
Around the predicted time, the radars of all three US Ballistic Missile Warning Systems (BMEWS) located in the Northern Hemisphere were disrupted. These radars, designed to detect Soviet missiles, seem to have been deliberately jammed. Any external influence on the US stations – including the jamming of radars – was considered a hostile act, tantamount to a declaration of war.
The US Air Force leadership, which was unaware of the upcoming storm, assumed that it was the USSR that disabled their systems, and therefore alerted aircraft equipped with nuclear weapons. The planet was saved from the start of a new conflict by a call from the NORAD command post – the Air Force leadership asked if there was any unusual activity on the Sun. Space forecasters have reported the activity of the star in recent days, and preparations for possible military action have ceased.
The geomagnetic storm, which began 40 hours after the outbreak, disrupted radio communications in America for almost a week and was so powerful that the northern lights were visible in the state of New Mexico, which is located in the southwest of the country.
Despite the fact that the authors of the article call the unfolding events “rather an overlay than a disaster,” one can only be glad that no mistake happened and the Sun did not make the weather on the US military front. After all, who knows how events would develop further.
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• Cruz, L. D. L. (2021, August 3). A 1967 solar storm nearly caused a nuclear war. EarthSky.
• Knipp, D. J. (n.d.). The May 1967 great storm and radio disruption event: Extreme space weather and extraordinary responses.
• Poppick, L. (2016, August 12). The solar storm that nearly set the Cold War Ablaze. Smithsonian.com.
• Sidder, A. (2021, May 3). How sun-watchers stopped World War III in 1967. Science.
• Wall, M. (2016, August 9). How a 1967 solar storm nearly led to nuclear war. Space.com.