Disclosure: Solar flares in 1967 almost started World War III

1967 solar storm nearly took US to brink of war

A view of the sun on May 23, 1967, in a narrow visible wavelength of light called Hydrogen-alpha. The bright region in the top center region of brightness shows the area where the large flare occurred. CREDIT National Solar Observatory historical archive.

A view of the sun on May 23, 1967, in a narrow visible wavelength of light called Hydrogen-alpha. The bright region in the top center region of brightness shows the area where the large flare occurred. CREDIT National Solar observatory historical archive.

From AGU WASHINGTON, DC — 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 May 23, 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 U.S. 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 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 will give a presentation about the event on August 10, 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.

The AWS employed a network of observers at various locations in the U.S. and abroad who provided regular input to solar forecasters at the North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD), a U.S. and Canadian organization that defends and controls airspace above North America. By 1967, several observatories were sending daily information directly to NORAD solar forecasters.

On May 18, 1967, an unusually large group of sunspots with intense magnetic fields appeared in one region of the sun. By May 23, observers and forecasters saw the sun was active and likely to produce a major flare. Observatories in New Mexico and Colorado saw a flare visible to the naked eye while a solar radio observatory in Massachusetts reported the sun was emitting unprecedented levels of radio waves.

A significant worldwide geomagnetic storm was forecast to occur within 36-48 hours, according to a bulletin from NORAD’s Solar Forecast Center in Colorado Springs, Colorado on May 23.

Radar ‘jamming’

As the solar flare event unfolded on May 23, radars at all three Ballistic Missile Early Warning System (BMEWS) sites in the far Northern Hemisphere were disrupted. These radars, designed to detect incoming Soviet missiles, appeared to be jammed. Any attack on these stations – including jamming their radar capabilities – was considered an act of war.

Retired Colonel Arnold L. Snyder, a solar forecaster at NORAD’s Solar Forecast Center, was on duty that day. The tropospheric weather forecaster told him the NORAD Command Post had asked about any solar activity that might be occurring.

“I specifically recall responding with excitement, ‘Yes, half the sun has blown away,’ and then related the event details in a calmer, more quantitative way,” Snyder said.

Along with the information from the Solar Forecast Center, NORAD learned the three BMEWS sites were in sunlight and could receive radio emissions coming from the sun. These facts suggested the radars were being ‘jammed’ by the sun, not the Soviet Union, Snyder said. As solar radio emissions waned, the ‘jamming’ also waned, further suggesting the sun was to blame, he said.

During most of the 1960s, the Air Force flew continuous alert aircraft laden with nuclear-weapons. But commanders, thinking the BMEWS radars were being jammed by the Russians and unaware of the solar storm underway, put additional forces in a “ready to launch” status, according to the study.

“This is a grave situation,” Knipp said. “But here’s where the story turns: things were going horribly wrong, and then something goes commendably right.”

The Air Force did not launch additional aircraft, and the study authors believe information from the Solar Forecasting Center made it to commanders in time to stop the military action, including a potential deployment of nuclear weapons. Knipp, quoting public documents, noted that information about the solar storm was most likely relayed to the highest levels of government – possibly even President Johnson.

The geomagnetic storm, which began about 40 hours after the solar flare and radio bursts, went on to disrupt U.S. radio communications in almost every conceivable way for almost a week, according to the new study. It was so strong that the Northern Lights, usually only seen in or near the Arctic Circle, were visible as far south as New Mexico.

Societal impact

According to Snyder and the study authors, it was the military’s correct diagnosis of the solar storm that prevented the event from becoming a disaster. Ultimately, the storm led the military to recognize space weather as an operational concern and build a stronger space weather forecasting system, he said.

The public is likely unaware that natural disasters could potentially trick contemporary military forces into thinking they are under attack, said Morris Cohen, an electrical engineer and radio scientist at Georgia Institute of Technology in Atlanta who was not involved in the new study.

“I thought it was fascinating from a historical perspective,” he said of the new study.

The May 1967 storm brought about change as a near miss rather than a full-blown catastrophe, according to Cohen.

“Oftentimes, the way things work is something catastrophic happens and then we say, ‘We should do something so it doesn’t happen again,'” he said. “But in this case there was just enough preparation done just in time to avert a disastrous result.”

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This research article will be freely available for 30 days from the date of publication. A PDF copy of the article can be downloaded at the following link: http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1002/2016SW001423/pdf

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64 thoughts on “Disclosure: Solar flares in 1967 almost started World War III

  1. To make matters worse the geomagnetic field is on the decline which is only going to enhance given solar events.

    As our magnetic field weakens – which it is doing right now – we lose more and more of our protection from solar events.

    The Earth’s magnetic field is weakening 10 times faster than previously thought, decreasing in strength about 5 percent a decade rather than 5 percent a century.

    In the second half of 2015 several minor solar upticks (100x weaker than ‘big’ ones) caused geomagnetic events we would expect from the only the largest flares every decade or so. This trend is expected to continue and it is not a pretty picture for the coming decades.

    • Does this weakening of the geomagnetic field have something to do with the reversal of the magnetic poles?

      • Stu, Not sure if it relates to reversal of the earth’s magnetic field, but as well as strength reducing, the magnetic poles are also rapidly drifting. The north magnetic pole has left Canada and is moving north by north-west at 55km per year. The south magnetic pole is no longer in Antarctica, and is moving in a north-westerly direction, but my quick search found no reference to its rate of movement. Good graphics at:
        http://www.ngdc.noaa.gov/geomag/GeomagneticPoles.shtml

      • The weakening of the geomagnetic field is not inconsistent with the IPCC’s theory that CO2 is evil and causes everything bad, including dandruff. Look for a new, robust paper out any day now, with twenty co-authors and full peer review, stating that this is all you and your SUV’s fault.

      • I was reading an article about a year ago that claimed that areas with reversed magnetic fields were growing in size and strength.

    • How do we relate this to CO2 in the atmosphere? It has to be there somewhere or someone has to invent it.

  2. Then there was the confusion over gamma ray bursts and the case of war games practice on the real monitoring and control systems at the Cheyenne Mtn. complex and several dozen equivalent cases on the Soviet side of the ledger. In the modern era we moved on and invented synthetic catastrophes with global warming misread of long term ocean temperature cycles.

  3. But surely the increase in CO2 from 1950 to 1967 made it easier for the solar flares to fool the military and the politicians?

    • Actually the aberrant Dark Matter hiding inside the CO2 sent Vibes into the sun’s atmosphere triggering the flares. Because it is Dark Matter it is undetectable however my computer modelling (words, typed on a Mac) are evidence that this happened. Scientific history shows that this type of model (words ie language) is perhaps the most powerful model of reality we have.

  4. I have heard (but never verified) that shortly after the US upgraded some of those Cold War early warning radars they got a radar return that was interpreted at first as hostile incoming aircraft/missiles. While preparations where under way to respond “forcefully” further observations showed that the aircraft appeared to be in a stable position, IE not moving closer to the US border.

    Turns out it was the Moon… Upgrading the strength of the outgoing radar beam allowed enough to come back from the Moon and be detected by new and more sensitive receiving circuity.

    Good thing they didn’t go all “nucular” on the Moon, they might have hit Neil or Buzz…

    I think after that they kept a little sketch of where the Moon was each night next to the radar screen….

    Cheers, KevinK.

    • I’ve heard this story too and I am skeptical. The early warning radar is at high latitude and pointed north. The moon would appear in the southern sky. So unless someone built a radar installation completely backwards, any bounce back off the moon would look like an invasion from Mexico.

      • Some of the early warning radars where at high latitude looking towards the North Pole, but, I believe that other early warning radars deployed in Alaska or Western Europe where looking more East/West and could have “seen” the Moon as a radar return.

        Never could trust those sneaky Russians, all the time we where watching the North Pole they where planning to launch missiles from Havana hoping we would leave the back door wide open.

        Cheers, KevinK.

      • For an observer in the arctic circle, there are periods when the moon does not set, and throughout the course of a day or night appears to circle in azimuth. Its elevation angle at some points could be low, matching the radar beam.

      • I remember that story as a kid, right after the DEW line was activated, they had a freak out when the moon crossed the radar path first time.

    • Completely impossible. The computer system (SAGE) wouldn’t (and never did) “see” the movement of the moon as an aircraft or as a missile. Further, IF the radar of any given sight was actually powerful enough send and thereby get a return from the moon it wouldn’t “look” like either a missile or an aircraft.

      • I never heard that a “computer system” saw a radar reflection from the Moon as a “target”. I heard that an operator interpreted the return as a target and raised an alarm that was responded to with “plans for a forceful reply”, IE get ready to launch our missiles. As I stated, after subsequent careful examination of the data it became apparent that the return was not from an incoming target and the forces were ordered to “stand down”.

        Bouncing radar off the Moon was done successfully by scientists about 1946 or so.

        Further details are probably still classified, but I did hear that a radar return from the Moon detected by an early warning radar operator in the US caused the alarm of “incoming” hostile forces to be raised. This could have caused the launching of US retaliatory nuclear forces in response, a bad day for everybody.

    • So the radar would have reported the target as being 240,000 miles away from the USA, and we don’t have any enemies that we know of at that distance.

      I’ll let the Myth Busters handle that claim.

      G

      • No, the radar would still see the return within the range window. The returned signal would be from the transmitted pulse several pulse periods back in time but would still show up as being within range. The max width of the range window is determined by the PRF (pulse rate frequency) of the radar. Every transmit pulse defines zero range for a new window.

      • George,

        You don’t understand. The BMEWS radars were not designed to track targets that far away. The echos from the moon were what is called second-trip echos or range folding. What these mean is that the receiver received RF echos from beyond the designed range cutoff so the spurious targets appear closer than they really are.

  5. Sounds similar to something that was reported around the start of WWII. The Japanese in Manchuria noted radio silence in Siberia and suspected preparations for a Soviet attack. They then considered a pre-emptive attack on Siberia but then realized it was a magnetic storm. Might have changed the complexion of the war. Maybe someone has further information on this incident and its role in the “Strike South” and “Black Dragon” factions in the Japanese high command?

  6. I think the title of the page should be changed – “…almost started World War III” is needlessly over-dramatic. From reading the source article there is only speculation, but the outcome appears to be a heightened alert status while searching for confirmation of an actual attack, or no attack. This is an understandable response to an unusual event that appeared to impact all three BMEWS sites simultaneously. To extrapolate from that and say that World War III was “almost started” is ludicrous.

    The article admits that no extra aircraft were actually launched, but speculates that had they been launched they would be difficult to recall. This is also overly dramatic and almost certainly incorrect. At that time, nuclear armed aircraft were always airborne, with additional aircraft on the ground to be launched if required. This would be a staged response: for example, first getting aircraft and crews ready; then starting engines and taxiing; then launching to a holding pattern to await further orders, etc. At all times aircraft were under command and control, usually with VHF/UHF which would be unaffected by solar activity. Any aircraft with communication difficulties would follow their last orders; which in this case were only a “heightened alert status” on the ground – no extra aircraft were launched.

    The article appears to imply going from the very first step straight to an all-out war, without the intervening steps. Such an event would only occur in the face of irrefutable evidence of an actual attack in progress, and by Presidential Order. I see no credible evidence that the first response to the BMEWS system going down was to launch an all-out immediate nuclear strike, with only our hero the solar scientist breathlessly intervening to save the day. More likely a heightened alert to find out what is going on, followed by meetings, briefings, etc. In other words, what already happens in military command centres on a daily basis.

    How about “Solar flares in 1967 led to a heightened military alert” or “Solar flares in 1967 ‘jammed’ military missile launch radars”

    • “I think the title of the page should be changed – “…almost started World War III” is needlessly over-dramatic.”

      Indeed. Not until one has read through a large chunk of the article do we find out that totally sober-minded & unworried people in charge did exactly what they were supposed to do, and got the information they needed to ensure they didn’t even need to go get a fresh cup of coffee, let alone launch “World War III.”
      1. Radars “appear” to be jammed.
      2. People in charge say “Hey, I wonder what else might be causing that effect. Space weather guys?”
      3. Space WXR Guys: “Yep, we got flares like Ivan’s mom’s got hemorrhoids!”
      4. P-I-C: “Roger, break: hey techies, could that foul your equipment, do you think?”
      5. Techies: “Yessir, that surely could do it.”
      6. P-I-C: “Roger, out.” (to the flunkie on deck): “Well, that was boring. *hands over a mug* Freshen this up for me, would you, son…?”

      The end. No WWIII, not even a change in DEFCON level.

  7. FYI,
    SAC’s airborne alert of armed bombers ended shortly after the 22 January 1968 crash of an armed B-52 at Thule AB, Greenland while trying to make an emergency landing. Although that crash, and the one earlier over Palomares Spain (Jan 66), were factors in the decision, the operating cost of the program while trying to sustain and build-up conventional B-52 bomber operations for the Vietnam War were the more decisive factors forcing an end to the kind of bomber alert operations depicted in Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove..

    • Yup. Mainly cost. In those days we weren’t overly worried about the odd Broken Arrow here and there. Especially there.

  8. Folks forget how much attention we used to pay to the sun. Back in the 1960s, shortwave used to be an important way to communicate. That meant the state of the ionosphere was really important. There were the equivalent of weather reports for the ionosphere. You could use them to calculate the best frequencies to communicate between any two points on the planet.

    “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.”

    I don’t know who ‘we’ refers to. A lot of people were paying close attention to the sun and the effect of the sun on communications was well understood.

    • Commiebob

      Thanks for the nod to those who were often the only source of comms after a ‘quake or hurricane. ‘We HAMs’ kept a very close watch on what band was open, when, what the sun was expected to do. Forecasts were important and treasured.

      That didn’t really change in terms of % of effort until digital communications (and digital licenses) started to rise in popularity. For those who weren’t aware, HAMs invented the modern world and (nearly) everything in it, unlike the claims in a book of that name blaming the Scots.

      [Must you take credit for Scottish pigs creating the HAMS even before they invented electricity? .mod]

      • … HAMs invented the modern world and (nearly) everything in it …

        Most people will think you’re exaggerating. Here’s a longish list of famous or important radio amateurs. Missing from the list is Edwin Armstrong who gave us the radio as we now know it. A radio amateur, Maximilian Kolbe.has been beatifed (that means he’s a saint). The computer on which I write this would be impossible without the inventions of several people on the list. I can’t think of any important events in the twentieth century that didn’t involve at least one radio amateur.

    • I think the Central Radio Propagation Lab was created on Table Mountain outside of Boulder, CO around 1946, but I’m not sure when they started issuing their “radio weather” forecasts. I just remember the forecasts were available back around 1957 when I got my first HAM license.

  9. ..Obviously, CO2 causes Solar Flares on the Sun, which will cause WW3, therefore wiping out the Human species that created the evil CO2, therefore Mother Earth will eventually return to her natural state of existing without those nasty Human parasites !….Ahhh, the dreams of liberals …… /sarc

  10. Reblogged this on Astronomy Topic Of The Day and commented:
    This particular topic is area of active, high-value research this author is heavily engaged in. The first section of this post will serve as a backdrop to the WUWT piece as to why a proper understanding of the sun’s influence on the Earth and its near space environment is critical to our long-term survival, not just how we would respond to a real contingency (as described in the WUWT piece) but also in the development and implementation of a workable, worldwide climate policy.

  11. I was talking with my father recently. He was a navigator in the Army Air Force during WWII, and mentioned that nobody knew celestial navigation nowadays, and that it would have to be retaught because one of the first targets in a major war would be the satellites our planes and ships rely on for navigation.

    • And don’t forget the thousands of sail-boat and power-boat cruisers out there that couldn’t find their way into the next boat slip without their GPS receivers. Even dead reckoning is a lost art today. Oops, I almost forgot the happy vacationers in their automobiles that don’t have nor know how to read road maps and would probably be left parked on the side of the road waiting for GPS to come back online.

      • I could imagine that instead of wiping out the GPS system, they could just screw with it so as to misdirect everyone and cause all kinds of confusion. Stupid people would still be using the incorrect directions and continue to be lost, and all they would do is complain about it.

      • In Zambia, I am told, GPS is useless. Apparently, you can get the signal okay, but no one has digitized the maps. I guess if you can cope with latitude-longitude, you might be okay.

  12. In fact, after the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962, in 1963 the Hotline was initiated between Washington and Moscow so that the respective leaders could communicate person to person in case a similar crisis rose again, so it is highly unlikely that this event occurred, or rather, that it was anywhere near as potentially dangerous as is made out.

    http://www.history.com/this-day-in-history/hotline-established-between-washington-and-moscow

    The whole thing sounds to me exactly like the plot of a film from IIRC the early 1970s.

  13. catweazle666 August 10, 2016 at 6:14 pm

    I tend to agree. Before these people strain their arms patting themselves on the back I have this to ask What was the Soviet Union doing at the Time? Did they not notice that their early warning systems where on the fritz? Or the Chinese? Remember they were having some border disagreements with the Soviets at this time.
    Things were tense all around, so if this event was as potentially dangerous in causing an accidentally nuclear war it took a lot more then just a few a American solar research programs to forestall. I lot of leaders in at least three separate governments had to quickly reach the same correct conclusions as to the communications and radar disruptions.

    heck of a lucky dice roll don’t you think?

    michael

  14. I imagine that a hostile actor might consider the presence of solar “jamming” to be a great time to launch a missile.

    • Yep. Logic would dictate that in the event of a solar storm one should launch preemptively to deny the enemy the cover which the storm would provide.

  15. And, by the way, it doesn’t take all that much power to get a readable signal back from the moon. Hams routinely communicate by “moonbounce” and have for decades, at a fraction of the power DEW radar transmitters put out.

    • Most of those radars were lower frequency “over the horizon” types meaning they were not designed to penetrate the ionosphere.

  16. In the modern era we entrusted life on the planet to a fully computerized monitoring and fire control system run by agencies that operate at the level of IT expertise of the VA, IRS, OPM, NASA, and others.

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

    ..And a lesson about how important it is to not exaggerate and cry wolf. That way you maintain your credibility for when it is really needed.

  18. This is why the Kitt Peak solar observatory was built back when I was a child there. To track solar storms!

  19. I think I remember this event. I was an amateur radio living in the Pittsburgh area while attending college. I twas in the middle of a ham-radio contest, the objective being to contact stations from other countries as possible. On Sunday morning, conditions were fantastic, low absorption — best I’ve ever seen. In the afternoon, signals started fading out rapidly, from north to south. By the end of the contest (in the evening), there were no stations heard on any frequency. I went outside, and the aurora was visible. It looked kind of strange, though. The sky would light up in the northeast, and the aurora would rapidly transition overhead, and set in the northwest. This process repeated many, many times,. And, it was almost as if you could see the lines of the Earth’s magnetic field as the visible aurora transitioned oveerhead.

  20. I want to take this time to recount another story where strategic weapons and earth science intersected.

    I am going to tell it as told to me by Dr. Maurice Major, of the Department of Geophysics, Colorado School of Mines and the initial curator of the Bergen Park seismic observatory. The Bergan Park observatory went on line in the fall of 1963 and recorded excellent records of the “Good Friday” Anchorage Earthquake of March 27, 1964 of magnitude 9.2.

    We were in a Physics of the Earth class discussing the Free Modes of Oscillation of the Earth To give an example of their significance these can play he recounted

    “We quickly published some of our findings of the quake from the Bergen Park system. About 3 weeks after the quake two officers from NORAD came to visit us from Colorado Springs. They wanted to find information about how much the earth moved in the central US from that Mag. 9.2 quake in Alaska. I told them that, ‘Yes, all places of the earth will move, but it all a matter of degree. It depends upon location, upon the orientation of the quake movement, and the degree of movement is very dependent upon frequency.

    “Could you give me a better idea of location than ‘central US’?” They shook their heads no.
    “We measured frequencies from a couple cycle per second to free mode periods of 44 minutes. Can we narrow down the frequency range you are most interested? They shook their heads no, emphatically.
    “Do you want displacement, permanent strain, velocity, accelerations…. ” They would not be specific.

    “We agreed that under the circumstances, that the best way we could help them was to digitize all the records we had from the short period, long period, strain meters and gravimeter and produce Fourier spectra of power and acceleration at different windows in time. The Air Force could take the data back to their specialists and see if it provided any answers.

    “We departed company with the Air Force at least certain that the central US did indeed move as a result of the quake in Alaska, and I was certain that the movement was both unexpected to them and important. I told this story every year in this class. But a few years later, an older student on the GI Bill in the back of class raised his hand.

    “I think I know the flip side to that story. I was a lieutenant in the Missile Command and I was on duty in the control room on that Good Friday. First, I have to explain that we keep those missiles at launch ready. That means we have to keep their inertial platforms aligned constantly on a spinning earth. The platform shines a light down the tunnel to a mirror to reflect back to the platform. As long as the reflected light is seen by the platform, we know the platform is oriented correctly. If the platform doesn’t see the reflected light, a red light come on in our control room that in effect says, ‘Do not fire me! I do not know where I am pointed!’ When our red light come on, another red light at SAC HQ comes on.

    “The day of the Alaska quake, that red light came on in our control room. From your story of the visit by officers from NORAD, I can imagine that within a span of a few minutes at SAC all the lights turned red”

  21. That’s the official press release of the Air Force. This is really what happened on May 23, 1967. This is the Stanley Kubrick version

  22. If we had more leaders like Peter Sellers the world would be a funnier place.
    Although goons already run the government!

  23. I’ve read somewhere that meteoric bolides were picked up by our DSP satellites and created some consternation before they were identified as meteoric events and not nuclear detonations.

    Do people here have the notion that our military doesn’t understand the existence or concept of spurious radar returns? Really? Or the concept of a False Alarm? If you know anything about the military, you would know that they have perhaps more experience of such things than any other organization.

  24. @Alan McIntire: I have to say that current trainees for the merchant navy are taught celestial navigation and DR. I expect military navigators are as well.

    You can never assume that any electronic navigation aid will be available when you need it.

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