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A Powerful Solar Flare Almost Ignited a Nuclear War in 1967

Aug 10, 2016 01:33 AM EDT
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A new study revealed that a strong solar storm that jammed the radar and radio communications at the height of the Cold War had almost ignited nuclear war between the United States and Soviet Union.

According to the study published in the journal Space Weather, the U.S. Air Force has began preparing additional aircraft equipped with nuclear weapons on May 23, 1967 due to the disruption of three of their Ballistic Missile Early Warning System radar sites located in Alaska, Greenland and United Kingdom.

U.S. military officials assumed that the Soviet Union is responsible for the jamming of their radar, which by that time is conceived as an act of war. However, just before the war aircrafts got the green light, weather space forecasters from North American Aerospace Defense Command or NORAD were able to convey the information stating the potential of solar storms to disrupt radar and radio communications.

"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," said Delores Knipp, a space physicist at the University of Colorado in Boulder and lead author of the study, in a press release. "This was a lesson learned in how important it is to be prepared."

Space forecasters observed an unusually large group of sunspots with intense magnetic fields appearing in one region of the sun on May 18, 1967 and by May 23, observatories in New Mexico and Colorado saw a flare visible to the naked eye while solar radio observatory in Massachusetts reported an unprecedented level of radio waves emitted by the sun.

 About 40 hours after the solar flares and radio burst, a geomagnetic storm went to disrupt radio communications in the United States for almost a week. The geomagnetic storm is also strong enough to make the Northern Lights, which is usually only seen in or near the Arctic Circle, visible as far south as New Mexico.

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