The Day Geoscience Saved the World From Possible Armageddon

Posted August 12th, 2016 at 3:40 pm (UTC-5)
2 comments

Artist illustration of events on the sun changing the conditions in Near-Earth space which can generate geomagnetic storms. These storms can interupt radar, radio communications and electrical grids on Earth. (NASA)

Artist illustration of events on the sun changing the conditions in Near-Earth space which can generate geomagnetic storms. These storms can interupt radar, radio communications and electrical grids on Earth. (NASA)

In the late 1960s, U.S. military action that would likely have led to nuclear Armageddon was averted, thanks to wary officers who looked for explanations other than Soviet aggression when warning systems suggested otherwise.

A new study by three retired U.S. Air Force officers and researchers at the University of Colorado, Boulder, details the events of May 23, 1967.  On that day, officials at the three Ballistic Missile Early Warning System (BMEWS) sites in the Northern Hemisphere noticed that radar and radio communication systems weren’t working properly. It appeared they were being jammed.

Three of the huge AN/FPS-50 radars at the Ballistic Missile Early Warning System Site 2, near Anderson, Alaska, in 1962. (Library of Congress/US National Park Service)

Three of the huge AN/FPS-50 radars at the Ballistic Missile Early Warning System Site 2, near Anderson, Alaska, in 1962. (Library of Congress/US National Park Service)

These military installations in Greenland, Alaska and in England were designed to spot any possible incoming Soviet missiles that might be armed with nuclear weapons.

Since it was the height of the Cold War, it was immediately thought that the USSR was deliberately jamming their equipment.

At the time, any purposeful jamming or interruption of radar capabilities at sites like these was considered to be an attack and an act of war.

So thinking that the BMEWS radar and communications systems were being compromised, the U.S. Air Force prepared their aircraft for possible nuclear war.

Fortunately, the Command Post at the North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD) asked Arnold L. Snyder, a solar forecaster for its Solar Forecast Center, about any solar activity that might be occurring at the time.

“Yes, half the sun has blown away,” recalled Snyder who said he was quite excited at the time. The now retired Air Force Lt. Colonel, commenting in a press release, said that after his initial outburst he was able to calmly provide details about one of the largest geomagnetic storms of the 20th century to his commanders at NORAD.

According to their website, NORAD is a combined organization of the United States and Canada that provides aerospace warning, air sovereignty, and defense for Northern America.

The command Post of the North American Air Defense Command -NORAD - Cheyenne Mountain Complex (US Dept. of Defense)

The command Post of the North American Air Defense Command – NORAD – Cheyenne Mountain Complex (US Dept. of Defense)

At the time of the incident, NORAD was operating at their celebrated Cheyenne Mountain Complex near Colorado Springs, Colorado. The facility had achieved ‘Full Operational Capability’ just a few months earlier.

Using Snyder’s solar observations and realizing that the three BMEWS sites were in sunlight at the time, NORAD realized that the radars and other communications gear were not being jammed by the USSR but by our own sun.

It was also noted that as the huge solar storm calmed the radar sites became operational again, providing even more evidence that the disruption was caused by the sun.

The study’s authors say they believe that NORAD’s information from the Solar Forecast Center was passed up through the military’s chain of command just in time to stop any military action, which may have included the use of nuclear weapons.

Various public documents analyzed for the study also indicate that the information may have been passed along to President Lyndon Johnson, who was the U.S. military’s commander-in-chief.

The three retired Air Force officers who co-authored the study were on duty that day and were involved in forecasting and analyzing the huge geomagnetic storm.

US Air Force B52 Stratofortress aircraft like was loaded with nuclear weapons and flew a constant 24-hour airborne alert in case of a possible nuclear attack by the Soviet Union. (USAF)

US Air Force B52 Stratofortress in flight. (USAF)

It’s also important to note that throughout much of the 1960s, the U.S. Air Force kept nuclear weapon laden B-52 Stratofortress aircraft flying to maintain a constant 24-hour airborne alert in case of a possible nuclear attack by the Soviet Union.

In the late 1950s at the dawn of the ‘space age’ the U.S. military took steps to keep tabs on solar activity, such as solar flares and space weather, since it became known that they can lead to geomagnetic storms, which can disrupt crucial radio communications and other crucial elements like our nation’s power grids.

The Air Force took space weather forecasting a step further in the 1960s when it established a new branch of its Air Weather Service devoted to monitoring events such as solar flares, coronal holes, solar winds, and others.

Today the Space Weather Prediction Center, operated jointly by National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and the U.S. Air Force continually monitors and forecasts Earth’s space environment and distributes solar-terrestrial information.

Rick Pantaleo
Rick Pantaleo maintains the Science World blog and writes stories for VOA’s web and radio on a variety of science, technology and health topics. He also occasionally appears on various VOA programs to talk about the latest scientific news. Rick joined VOA in 1992 after a 20 year career in commercial broadcasting.

2 responses to “The Day Geoscience Saved the World From Possible Armageddon”

  1. manuel says:

    Did the USSR also experience the same at that time? Did they ever prepare to lunch a nuclear attack also?

  2. Ace jackson says:

    cool story bro