Study finds 1967 solar storm almost led to World War III

10 Aug 2016

Almost 50 years ago, in 1967, a powerful solar storm that bombarded Earth not only resulted in the jamming of many radar and radio communications, but put our planet on the brink of World War III, a new study has revealed.

Despite its ominous name, a solar storm – in which a solar flare eruption from the surface of the sun barrels towards Earth – is not an uncommon cosmic event.

In fact, hundreds of flares erupt from the sun on an annual basis but, every few decades or so, an eruption can wreak havoc with Earth’s radio transmissions or even major power grids, such as during the Canadian blackout of 1989.

Future Human

Polar listening stations go dark

Now, in a new study published in the journal Space Weather, researchers looking at a solar storm in 1967 have uncovered some startling facts about its effects during the height of the Cold War.

Retired US Air Force officers who were working on 23 May 1967 have told how the US military was suddenly put on high alert after it was discovered that its surveillance towers based in the polar regions had suddenly become jammed.

Fearing that an attack from the Soviet Union was imminent, US military commanders were prepared for an incoming, full-scale, nuclear assault.

However, just in time, a team of recently-assembled space weather forecasters was able to tell commanders the jamming was the result of interference from a solar storm, thereby preventing any retaliatory response from the US.

1967 solar storm image

A view of the sun on 23 May 1967. The bright region in the top-centre region of brightness shows the area where the large flare occurred. Image via National Solar Observatory historical archive

Just in the nick of time

“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,” said Delores Knipp, lead author of the new study. “This was a lesson learned in how important it is to be prepared.”

In fact, it was only a few years prior to this event that the US Air Force’s Air Weather Service (AWS) began monitoring solar flare activity and, on 18 May 1967, spotted an unusually large group of sunspots with intense magnetic fields.

On the same day as the US Air Force noticed its listening towers went offline, the AWS team had predicted that a worldwide geomagnetic storm was due to hit Earth within a period of 36 to 48 hours.

B 52 bomber

B-52 bomber image via Shutterstock

‘Yes, half the sun has blown away’

One of those officers responsible for relaying the news was Retired Colonel Arnold L Snyder, who was also a solar forecaster.

In describing what it was like effectively preventing World War III, he said: “I specifically recall responding with excitement, ‘Yes, half the sun has blown away’, and [I] then related the event details in a calmer, more quantitative way.”

In 2016, efforts are still underway to more accurately predict any potential damage caused by solar flares and harmful geomagnetic storms.

One such effort is happening right here in Ireland, where physicists from Trinity College Dublin (TCD) last year began development of an advanced solar flare warning system.

Solar flare image via Shutterstock

Colm Gorey was a senior journalist with Silicon Republic