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The day the Sun almost caused World War III

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Should the American people expect Rick Perry, the nominee for U.S. Secretary of Energy, to properly handle an emergency like the one we faced in 1967? (S.F. Examiner illustration)
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People have only recently learned about an incident in the 1960s when activity on the Sun nearly started a nuclear war here on Earth. What happened that day illustrates how important critical thinking, science literacy and not jumping to conclusions are in our leaders.

At the height of the Cold War, our military stood on hair-trigger alert. Equipped with nuclear weapons, U.S. bombers were always in the air, ready to drop their deadly cargoes on Russian targets, if ordered. Early warning radars constantly scanned the skies looking for incoming Soviet missiles. If any were detected, the government would have mere minutes to launch a retaliatory nuclear counterstrike.

On May 23, 1967, three early warning radars in the far northern regions of Canada and Alaska were suddenly disrupted. The military thought the Russians were jamming the radars — the first step in a missile attack. Commanders began to prepare additional nuclear-equipped bombers for launch — the first step in a counterstrike. Nuclear Armageddon was imminent.

Someone at the North American Aerospace Defense Command thought to ask the military’s solar scientists whether anything was happening on the Sun that day that might be affecting the radars. The answer was plenty.

The Sun is a gas-like plasma of super-hot, highly charged particles. Churned by the intense heat generated by nuclear fusion at the Sun’s core, the moving charged particles generate strong magnetic fields. When this magnetic energy builds up in the solar atmosphere, it can be released suddenly in a solar flare.

A few days before the early warning radars stopped working, solar scientists had noted an unusually large group of sunspots on the surface of the Sun. These cooler, magnetically intense areas are frequently associated with solar flares.

The day the radars stopped working, scientists saw a major solar flare and reported the Sun was emitting unusually high levels of radio waves as part of the flare. Most of this energy was focused at the same frequency the early warning radars used to search for missiles. The radars weren’t being jammed by the Russians; they were being overwhelmed by radio emissions from the solar flare. There was no attack.

Fortunately, information about the solar storm made it to the military commanders during those critical few minutes, and the commanders stopped the launch of U.S. bombers and missiles.

The story of this nuclear near miss appeared in the Sept. 5, 2016, issue of Space Weather, a scientific journal published by the American Geophysical Union. The lead author, Delores Knipp, a space physicist at the University of Colorado in Boulder, notes that information about the solar storm was likely relayed to the highest levels of government, possibly even to President Lyndon Johnson.

Nuclear Armageddon was prevented, in large part, because the military officials involved didn’t just assume the “obvious” explanation was the right one. With the clock ticking and under intense pressure, these officials took the time to consider whether there was an alternate explanation for the radars and then consult scientists about what else could be happening.

What if the same thing happened today, and the decision whether to launch missiles fell to the current president? Our week-old administration places little value on critical-thinking skills. From denying climate change to reducing environmental protections to disputing evolution, they seem hell-bent on delegitimizing the role of science and scientists in government’s policies and decisions.

The people being appointed to high-level positions are not only scientifically illiterate, but proud of it. Rick Perry, the nominee for U.S. Secretary of Energy, earned mostly C’s in classes in his major of animal science. The previous three Energy Secretaries have had Ph.D.s in chemical engineering or physics; one was even a Nobel Prize winner. Their background and training helped them manage the department that deals with nuclear weapons and reactors, radioactive waste and energy production.

I cannot imagine how the new administration would handle an emergency like the one we faced in 1967. Would they think to question whether a foreign government was really jamming or hacking into the radars? Or would they just assume they were and retaliate, starting World War III? I’m honestly not sure, and that scares the hell out of me.

Sally Stephens is an animal, park and neighborhood activist who lives in the West of Twin Peaks area.

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