Had experts not monitored the sun's activity in 1967, the Cold War could have broken out into a disastrous military conflict and led to a nuclear war, a new study suggests.
But thanks to data-gathering by military space weather forecasters, a nuclear weapon exchange between the United States and the Soviet Union was prevented, researchers said.
In May 1967, the country's Air Force was already preparing aircraft for war. Officials were considering the possibility that the nation's surveillance radars in the Northern Hemisphere were being jammed by the Soviet Union.
At that time, however, military space weather scientists conveyed information that ultimately prevented catastrophic events.
According to forecasters, a colossal solar storm was actually jamming radio and radar communications, instead of human interference. Because of this, U.S. planes remained on the ground and the country avoided a potential nuclear war.
Several U.S. Air Force veterans involved in the forecasting and analysis of the solar storm collectively described the event and disclosed details in public for the first time.
Space physicist Delores Knipp of University of Colorado in Boulder says little was known about the potential impact of the solar storm on society until the Air Force officers gathered to share stories.
Knipp says the solar storm is a classic example of how space research and geoscience are crucial to national security.
"This was a lesson learned in how important it is to be prepared," says Knipp.
Monitoring The Sun's Activity
The military started keeping an eye on space weather and solar activity in the late 1950s to see disturbances in our planet's upper atmosphere and magnetic field.
A new monitoring division of the Air Force's Air Weather Service (AWS) was formed in the 1960s which checked on the sun regularly for solar flares.
The AWS tasked a network of observers at different locations in the U.S. and outside the country to provide regular input to space weather forecasters at NORAD or the North American Aerospace Defense Command.
NORAD is a joint organization between the U.S. and Canada that controls and defends airspace above the entire continent of North America.
By 1967, observatories were sending every day information directly to NORAD space weather forecasters.
On May 18 of that same year, an unusually big group of sunspots with powerful magnetic fields seemed to form in one specific region of the sun.
Five days later, scientists saw the sun was active and would possibly produce a solar flare.
Colorado and New Mexico observatories saw a flare visible in the naked eye while a Massachusetts radio observatory reported that the sun was spitting out unprecedented levels of radio waves.
A NORAD bulletin from the Solar Forecast Center in Colorado forecasted that a significant worldwide geomagnetic storm would occur within 36 to 48 hours.
Radio And Radar Jamming
During this time, radars at three Ballistic Missile Early Warning System locations in the Northern Hemisphere were disrupted. Any attack on these radars was considered an act of war.
Fortunately, Arnold L. Snyder, then a solar forecaster and now a retired Colonel, was on duty that time.
Snyder says the NORAD Command Post had inquired about any solar activity and he responded that "half the sun has blown away." NORAD was also informed that the three radar sites were in sunlight and could receive radio emissions that come from the sun.
These indicated that the radars were not being jammed by the Soviet Union, but by the sun, Snyder said. And as radio emissions from the sun waned, so did the supposed jamming, he says.
Indeed, the accurate prediction of the solar storm prevented the event from turning into a disaster.
The solar storm ultimately led the military to recognize space weather as an essential and operational concern, prompting them to build a more efficient and stronger forecasting system.
The findings of the new study are published [PDF] in the journal Space Weather, which is part of the American Geophysical Union.