A solar storm that jammed radar and radio communications at the height of the Cold War could have led to a disastrous military conflict if not for the US Air Force’s efforts to monitor the Sun’s activity, say US researchers.
On May 23, 1967, the Air Force prepared aircraft for war, thinking the nation’s surveillance radars in polar regions were being jammed by the Soviet Union.
Just in time, military space weather forecasters conveyed information about the solar storm’s potential to disrupt radar and radio communications.
The planes remained on the ground and the US avoided a potential nuclear weapons exchange with the Soviet Union, researchers added.
Retired US Air Force officers involved in forecasting the storm collectively describe the event publicly for the first time in a new paper accepted for publication in Space Weather, a journal of the American Geophysical Union.
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“The storm’s potential impact on society was largely unknown until these individuals came together to share their stories,” said Delores Knipp, a space physicist at the University of Colorado in Boulder.
On May 18, 1967, an unusually large group of sunspots with intense magnetic fields appeared in one region of the Sun.
As the solar flare event unfolded on May 23, radars at all three Ballistic Missile Early Warning System (BMEWS) sites in the far Northern Hemisphere were disrupted.
These radars, designed to detect incoming Soviet missiles, appeared to be jammed.
Any attack on these stations – including jamming their radar capabilities – was considered an act of war.
The geomagnetic storm, which began about 40 hours after the solar flare and radio bursts, went on to disrupt US radio communications in almost every conceivable way for almost a week, according to the new study.
It was so strong that the Northern Lights, usually only seen in or near the Arctic Circle, were visible as far south as New Mexico.
Knipp was set to make a presentation about the event at the High Altitude Observatory at the National Center for Atmospheric Research in Boulder, Colorado, this week.