If there is any possibility worse than a large-scale nuclear arms exchange, it might be a large-scale nuclear arms exchange launched because of a simple misunderstanding. We may have been close to that scenario in 1967, but you can thank some meteorologists for the fact that it didn’t happen.
In late May 1967, an active spot on the sun threw a remarkable storm our way, which lasted for several days. The spot released charged particles and severe bursts of radiation in the radio portion of the electromagnetic spectrum (among other things), disrupting Earth’s ionosphere and magnetic field. All of this resulted in disruptions to radio communications and radar systems for a few days, as well as the Northern Lights being seen as far south as New Mexico.
Crucially, the early disturbances included NORAD’s newly built Ballistic Missile Early Warning System. The three high-latitude radar stations (in Alaska, Greenland, and the UK) went virtually dark on the afternoon of May 23. As the sun sank lower in the sky, these radar systems focused precisely on the source of the radio emissions. just as they arrived. To US military leaders, it was very much like jamming: Russia blinding its eyes as it watches for incoming nuclear weapons. Did that mean missiles or planes were on their way?
With American bombers on constant alert, they could have been airborne in minutes and headed for Russia. Of course, the problems with the radar stations were just the beginning of the disruptions that followed, so those bombers might have lost their communications link after they took off. Orders to return to base may never have been received. In that scenario, standing orders meant they would advance to their target and drop their bombs.
Fortunately none of that happened – for reasons detailed in an unusual but riveting article published in the magazine Space weather. In the late 1950s, the authors explain, the United States Air Force sent a few officers from its Air Weather Service back to school to study solar activity and its effects on the Earth. By the end of 1965, the Air Weather Service had people in a few observatories monitoring solar activity.
So when the Ballistic Missile Early Warning System “jammed up” not long after in 1967, the folks at the Air Weather Service knew the sun was setting. This was not yet a factor that many in the military knew they had to reckon with, but the officers managed to publicize it. The authors write: “[T]The online memorial tribute to Colonel CK Anderson, on the occasion of his passing in late 2015, clearly credits him and his NORAD solar forecasting staff (particularly Maj. Donald Sherry and Capt. Lee Snyder) for providing the information that ultimately calmed nerves and left the aircraft engines cool down as they return to the normal alert position.
This fear clearly showed the importance of timely solar updates and predictions of possible communication interference, and so the fledgling program was quickly strengthened and incorporated into the daily flow of information. More instruments were added for monitoring, along with new forecasting models and a larger staff using Department of Defense weather satellites to conduct research. Solar activity would not be mistaken for Russian aggression again.
“In terms of long-term social effects,” the paper’s authors write, “we all need to think about how the outcomes of the May 23, 1967 solar radio storms might have been different without trained and astute [Air Weather Service] solar energy observers/forecasters who provided crucial information reaching decision makers at the highest levels of government.”
Space weather2016. DOI: 10.1002/2016SW001423 (About DOIs).