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 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 analysing the storm collectively describe the event publicly for the first time.
“The storm’s potential impact on society was largely unknown until these individuals came together to share their stories,” says Delores Knipp, a space physicist at the University of Colorado in Boulder, a senior research associate at the National Center for Atmospheric Research. The storm is a classic example of how geoscience and space research are essential to U.S. national security.
“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 explains. “This was a lesson learned in how important it is to be prepared,” she says.