The Sun
The Sun on May 23, 1967. The bright spot shows the location of a large solar flare. National Solar Observatory historical archive
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Five years after the Cuban Missile crisis brought the Soviet Union and the United States to the brink of war, another event occurred that brought the two superpowers once again to the brink.

This event didn’t involve military movements, covert intelligence, or revolution. Instead, a war nearly started because of a storm on the sun.

In a paper published in Space Weather, researchers describe the impact of the 1967 storm on national security, and the space weather alert system in the United States.

The storm, which originated on the Sun in mid-to-late May of 1967, was a G5 storm, the highest classification, given to only the strongest solar storms. The waves of radiation, magnetic fields, and gasses emanating from the Sun collided with the Earth’s atmosphere in late May, temporarily disrupting American radar systems in the Northern Hemisphere that were designed to watch for incoming missiles.

At that moment, it appeared that the most likely explanation for the failure of the stations was a coordinated attack by the Soviets, jamming the radar equipment of the United States. The military went on high alert, until researchers with the nascent Solar Forecasting Center managed to get information to the officials in charge, calming fears of an impending attack.

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

The massive solar storm of 1967, which sent auroras into the sky as far south as New Mexico, is now considered to be one of the turning points in solar storm forecasting. The military, which had communications disrupted for up to a week began taking the threat of a solar storm very seriously, and space weather prediction got an added boost.

Today, researchers around the world are still on the lookout for solar storms, which may pose a danger to electrical grids, GPS, and communications. The real danger of solar storms, as illustrated by the 1967 event, shows that if we care about protecting our energy infrastructure from outside forces, solar storm forecasting capabilities might be better thing to invest in than fictional weapons.

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