50 Years Ago: A Scary Cold War Moment

Fifty years ago today, the US and the USSR came close to World War III. That was both due to and saved by modern technology. See, a solar storm began on May 18 with solar flares, coronal mass ejections (CMEs), and sunspots. These phenomena can cause real problems with radio signals on earth, and radio signals were extremely important in the Cold War.

On May 23, 1967, the sun fired off a flare so powerful that it was visible to the naked eye, and began emitting radio waves at a level that had never been seen before, study team members said.

That same day, all three of the Air Force's Ballistic Missile Early Warning System radar sites in the far Northern Hemisphere — which were located in Alaska, Greenland and the United Kingdom — appeared to be jammed.

Air Force officials initially assumed that the Soviet Union was responsible. Such radar jamming is considered an act of war, so commanders quickly began preparing nuclear-weapon-equipped aircraft for launch. (These newly scrambled aircraft would have been "additional forces," according to the study authors; the U.S. kept nuke-bearing "alert" planes aloft pretty much continuously throughout the 1960s.)

The geomagnetic storm that followed the flare disrupted radio signals for about a week afterward. But, as you can probably guess, World War III was not instigated. That was due to our government's early embrace of weather technology and space research, which you can read about at Sky and Telescope. -via Metafilter


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