1967 solar storm jammed USAF radars, nearly taking U.S. to brink of war

Published 10 August 2016

A solar storm that jammed radar and radio communications at the height of the Cold War could have led to a disastrous military conflict if not for the U.S. Air Force’s budding efforts to monitor the sun’s activity, a new study finds.

On 23 May 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 United States avoided a potential nuclear weapon exchange with the Soviet Union, according to the new research.

Retired U.S. Air Force officers involved in forecasting and analyzing the storm collectively describe the event publicly for the first time in a new paper accepted for publication in Space Weather, a journal of the American Geophysical Union.

The AGU notes that the storm’s potential impact on society was largely unknown until these individuals came together to share their stories, said Delores Knipp, a space physicist at the University of Colorado in Boulder and lead author of the new study. Knipp is giving a presentation about the event on 10 August 2016 at the High Altitude Observatory at the National Center for Atmospheric Research in Boulder, Colorado.

The storm is a classic example of how geoscience and space research are essential to U.S. national security, she said.

“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,” Knipp said. “This was a lesson learned in how important it is to be prepared.”

Keeping an eye on the sun
The U.S. military began monitoring solar activity and space weather – disturbances in Earth’s magnetic field and upper atmosphere – in the late 1950s. In the 1960s, a new branch of the Air Force’s Air Weather Service (AWS) monitored the sun routinely for solar flares – brief intense eruptions of radiation from the sun’s atmosphere. Solar flares often lead to electromagnetic disturbances on Earth, known as geomagnetic storms, that can disrupt radio communications and power line transmissions.