In 1967, a solar storm almost triggered World War 3. What?

Space scientists frequently find they must dispel false information spread by the imaginations of the public trying to explain celestial phenomenon - such as solar storms. 

This image provided by NASA shows a solar flare early Tuesday, Aug. 9, 2011. The image was was captured by NASA's Solar Dynamics Observatory (SDO) in extreme ultraviolet light at 131 Angstroms. Scientists say the bursts of radiation hurled by the solar blast were not in the direction of Earth, so there’ll be little impact to satellites and communication systems.

Half a century ago, cold war tensions nearly came to a head over a couple of sunspots.

On May 23, 1967, the US Air Force was preparing its nuclear-armed aircraft for takeoff. The Soviet Union had jammed US surveillance radars, military officials believed, which was considered an act of war. But according to a new study published Tuesday in the journal Space Weather, scientists arrived just in time to defuse the situation: it was actually a solar storm, not a Soviet military operation, that jammed the radars.

"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, a space physicist at the University of Colorado Boulder and the study's lead author, said in a statement. "This was a lesson learned in how important it is to be prepared."

Earlier that month, researchers had noticed a large group of magnetically charged sunspots on the solar surface. These cool, dark sunspots are known to launch bursts of solar radiation, called solar flares, as well as plasma eruptions called coronal mass ejections (CMEs).

On May 23, they recorded a solar flare so intense that it was visible by the naked eye. The flare gave off unprecedented levels of radio wave emissions. The same day, US military officials found that three of its Ballistic Missile Early Warning System radar sites appeared to be jammed. The Air Force prepared aircraft with nuclear weapons, ready to scramble in retaliation.

"This is a grave situation," Dr. Knipp said. "But here's where the story turns: Things were going horribly wrong, and then something goes commendably right."

Solar forecasters from the North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD) intervened in time to stop the launch. It was solar flares, not the Soviets, that jammed the radars. Research branches of the US military, it turns out, had been monitoring solar activity since the 1950s.

But it wouldn’t be the last time that an unusual cosmic event would trigger panic. When convention and science don’t offer satisfactory answers, we often turn to the fantastic as a plausibility.

Last month, an unidentified blip was spotted in the corner of an International Space Station video feed. But just as the object approached Earth’s atmosphere, the feed cut off, prompting rumors that NASA was covering up evidence of UFOs.

Astronomers say the blip was probably a small object floating nearby, rather than an large alien craft in the distance. Sometimes, science offers boring answers to fantastic questions, and that’s when people come up with their own theories to explain the mysterious.

“People are suspicious of any sort of power and hold-over information,” author Mark Fenster told the Monitor last month. “When the government reports on what they’ve found, any suspicious person will question what the government has released.”

And as information becomes increasingly accessible via the internet, so, too, does misinformation. Conspiracy theories and pseudoscience, which might otherwise be relegated to fringe publications, permeate Facebook and Twitter feeds. But connectivity can also provide quicker explanations – if NORAD had email in 1967, the "solar scare" probably would have been over before it began.

In July, NASA released an infrared photo that showed a massive dark spot enveloping the sun. The image prompted some initial fear – namely, that our star was dying – but astronomers quickly nipped panic in the bud. The spot was merely a coronal hole, a perfectly normal phenomenon relating to solar storms. Some believe that NASA deliberately released the strange images as a public relations move.

“Investigators working on NASA missions are under constant pressure to generate PR images for NASA public affairs folks to feed out to the public,” John Mariska, a research professor specializing in space weather at George Mason University, told the Monitor in July. “In my view, there is a tendency to overdo the hype. That being said, trying to inspire young people to consider a career in science is very important to the future of our country.”

You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.
Real news can be honest, hopeful, credible, constructive.
What is the Monitor difference? Tackling the tough headlines – with humanity. Listening to sources – with respect. Seeing the story that others are missing by reporting what so often gets overlooked: the values that connect us. That’s Monitor reporting – news that changes how you see the world.

Dear Reader,

About a year ago, I happened upon this statement about the Monitor in the Harvard Business Review – under the charming heading of “do things that don’t interest you”:

“Many things that end up” being meaningful, writes social scientist Joseph Grenny, “have come from conference workshops, articles, or online videos that began as a chore and ended with an insight. My work in Kenya, for example, was heavily influenced by a Christian Science Monitor article I had forced myself to read 10 years earlier. Sometimes, we call things ‘boring’ simply because they lie outside the box we are currently in.”

If you were to come up with a punchline to a joke about the Monitor, that would probably be it. We’re seen as being global, fair, insightful, and perhaps a bit too earnest. We’re the bran muffin of journalism.

But you know what? We change lives. And I’m going to argue that we change lives precisely because we force open that too-small box that most human beings think they live in.

The Monitor is a peculiar little publication that’s hard for the world to figure out. We’re run by a church, but we’re not only for church members and we’re not about converting people. We’re known as being fair even as the world becomes as polarized as at any time since the newspaper’s founding in 1908.

We have a mission beyond circulation, we want to bridge divides. We’re about kicking down the door of thought everywhere and saying, “You are bigger and more capable than you realize. And we can prove it.”

If you’re looking for bran muffin journalism, you can subscribe to the Monitor for $15. You’ll get the Monitor Weekly magazine, the Monitor Daily email, and unlimited access to

QR Code to In 1967, a solar storm almost triggered World War 3. What?
Read this article in
QR Code to Subscription page
Start your subscription today