A Solar Flare Almost Started A Nuclear War In 1967. Here Is The Story

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The US Air Force readied a nuclear weapons-laden jet for deployment on May 23, 1967. The Air Force was spurred into action by the disruption of the particular radar system designed to detect the oncoming Soviet Missiles.


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Image: Wikimedia


However, the Air Force command was ordered to stand before things went too far. The new US Solar Forecasting Center had pointed its fingers at a surprising culprit: a solar flare.

A new military history paper revealed the details of the incident indicating how close did the world come to another atomic annihilation, and all because of the space weather!

The lead author of the paper Delores Knipp is a former Air Force officer and a space weather expert at the University of Colorado.

“This is what we would characterize as a really near miss.”

The term space weather is used to refer to all the high-energy materials projected by the sun when it shows high activity. A solar flare from the sun can send bursts of the UV and X-rays into space.

On hitting the ionosphere, the outermost atmospheric layer, these rays generate an EM impulse that pulls electrons and results in a tremendous amount of electric charge. The massive build-up of charge can kill the radio devices.

After the emission of a huge solar flare, a massive cloud of magnetised plasma, or coronal mass ejection (CME), is ejected by the sun. CME is responsible for the aurora borealis (a phenomenon commonly known as the northern lights) and the power blackouts at a major scale. 

Albeit being a temporary difficulty, the solar storms can become particularly challenging if people fail to recognise what is actually happening.


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Image: National Solar Observatory


The US military began observing the solar activity somewhere before May 1967. A series of bright solar flares was reported on May 23. These solar flares were photographed, including the one that later was called the largest solar radio burst of the 20th century.

Following the flares, NORAD’s Solar Forecast Center issued a worldwide warning for a geomagnetic storm. Apparently, the warning came in just in the nick of time as the US Air Force was preparing for the retaliation attack as its Ballistic Missile Early Warning System (BMEWS) went down. As Knipp puts it:

“The aircraft did not launch—we’re pretty certain of that. Was war imminent? What we know is that decisions were being made on the tens of minutes to hours basis, and that information got to the right place at the right time to prevent a disaster.”

The predicted storm hit the Earth 40 hours later, killing all radio communication while the Northern Lights were seen as far as New Mexico.

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