Nuclear Confrontation Likely Avoided by Early Science on Solar Storms

A solar flare, as captured by NASA's Solar Dynamics Observatory.


A solar flare, as captured by NASA’s Solar Dynamics Observatory.

The U.S. Air Force had just begun efforts to monitor the sun’s activity in 1967, at the height of the Cold War, when a solar storm jammed radar and radio communications and could have led to a disastrous  nuclear exchange with the Soviet Union, according to a new peer-reviewed study in Space Weather, a journal of the American Geophysical Union.

Delores Knipp, the lead author of the new paper and a research scientist with the National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR) in Boulder, shared the drama in a news release from the Geophysical Union: “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 U.S. avoided a potential nuclear weapon exchange with the Soviet Union.”

The storm’s potentially devastating impact on society was largely unknown until retired U.S. Air Force officers involved in forecasting and analyzing the storm collectively describe the event publicly for the first time in Space Weather.

“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 solar storm) likely would have been much greater,” Knipp said. “This was a lesson learned in how important it is to be prepared.”

The storm is a classic example of how geoscience and space research are essential to U.S. national security, she said. Knipp gave a presentation last week about the event at NCAR’s High Altitude Observatory in Boulder.

These days, at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Space Weather Prediction Center, also in Boulder, teams of forecasters work around the clock trying to forecast solar storms and their impacts.

“They sit in a dark room, hunched in front of one of 10 or so computer screens, each with a different image of the sun,” Inside Energy reporter Emily Guerin wrote, after a visit to the center. “They look for sun spots, which are the source of solar flares, the origin of storms. When they spot one, they have to wait 15 hours or more to know how bad it is.

“That is about when the storm’s charged particles reach a satellite about a million miles from earth that chief forecaster Bob Rutledge compared to ‘a hurricane buoy 50 miles off the coast of Miami,'” Guerin wrote.

The potential destructive impacts of solar storms are now better understood, and the forecasters send out alerts about storms to utilities, grid operators and the Federal Emergency Management Agency, among many others.


This post was updated on Aug. 23, 2016 to clarify Delores Knipp’s role as lead author of the new paper in Space Weather.


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