back to article Revealed: How a weather forecast in 1967 stopped nuclear war

For the first time, retired US Air Force officers have published [PDF] an account of an incident on May 23, 1967 when a solar storm nearly fooled American high command into thinking that a Soviet nuclear attack was on the way. On that day, the US military nuclear command went into panic mode when signals from all three of the …

These kinds of stories make me wonder if we're not in the "great filter" stage of civilisation now. Where all other civilisations in the past have managed to wipe themselves out. We have the capabilities, certainly.

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@ Sebastian A - Makes one wonder because this is not the only well documented case of a mid level officer saying hang there this IS NOT the big one or even a little one.

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It's very possible, especially if one believes the reports that a certain Presidential candidate argued with security advisors about "why can't we nuke them?".

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Right, there's the case of the USSR officer who stopped a near-launch, the nuke that dropped from a bomber and didn't go off because of a 50-cent switch holding everything back, several cases of "oops" with nuclear reactors, etc.

Of course, if we did have an "oops" moment, if nukes launched we'd have over 90% mortality in one year. The electrical grid would go down, and then it wouldn't be rebuild for a very, very long time. Probably long enough that nations could rise and fall.

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Even if it was 90% mortality (which I doubt) the human race would survive. While it would take decades, perhaps even a century, humanity would be back on our feet. And hopefully wiser.

Though honestly I think we're past the stage where a large scale nuclear exchange is possible. I think it is better than 50/50 odds nuclear weapons will be used in anger in the next fifty years, but it would be a very limited exchange. We didn't do any permanent damage to the Earth with our above ground testing in the 40s/50s/60s, so a limited exchange isn't enough to cause a major disruption to our civilization. Just end the lives of whoever is on the wrong end of that - likely the Middle East or SE Asia.

I'd be more worried about something we might invent in the future, whether it be AI or some new power source that can be turned into or sabotaged into a weapon that makes a nuke look like a firecracker.

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Coat

But, the question everyone want answering

would be..... could you still play Pokemon Go?

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That depends on your definition of "limited".

There was a lot of damage caused by above ground testing (designed to minimize damage and investigate the damage there was). And this would NOT be testing - but deliberately placed detonations; designed specifically to kill people. Also even one detonation would be several times larger than the tests.

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@B Miller

I was asked, in an interview for a Civil Service job, what would happen if Britain suffered a nuclear attack. I replied that the economy would be destroyed but people would survive: and that had been the case in Germany in 1945 after the thousand-bomber raids that dropped enough TNT to match a fission bomb.

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Not so sure . .

"While it would take decades, perhaps even a century, humanity would be back on our feet."

I think it would take a LOT longer than that. Massive loss of infrastructure and know-how. Much information only available in irretrievable electronic formats (EMP, no power infrastructure, spares, transport, etc.) and all the easily accessible fossil fuels well and truly mined out with none of the knowledge, experience and industrial infrastructure required to access the rest. I think it would be a long, hard, millennial climb back from a new bronze or iron age.

And wiser? Humanity (en masse) has shown little ability to learn from much more recent lessons in where violence leads.

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Even if it was 90% mortality (which I doubt) the human race would survive. While it would take decades, perhaps even a century, humanity would be back on our feet.

It is hard to say. It will likely be the more advanced societies, those who have lost the skills and knowledge of their ancestors, have become reliant on others and technology providing for them, who will have the greatest survival problems and will perhaps succumb within months.

There will be some survivalists and a fortunate few who struggle through while those who don't see much change post-Armageddon will carry on much as before. It really comes down to whether the devastation is so bad that even those used to living off dirt cannot survive.

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@ doug

depends what "back on your feet", means if you mean 'stopped starving to death and fully expecting to be stabbed for your half eaten carrot' then yes maybe 100 years we'll be back to the middle ages with farms and such. Anything "Digital" would be centuries plural i think.

Archaeology would be a booming industry though :)

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Mushroom

Re: But, the question everyone want answering

"would be..... could you still play Pokemon Go?"

I feel dirty joking about this, but... well, what you need to play aside your smartphone is the cloud, no? Well, availability of clouds on a such event would be guaranteed --->

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> a certain Presidential candidate argued with security advisors about "why can't we nuke them?"

It gets worse than that! During the Cuban Missile Crisis, USAF General Curtis LeMay was all "Nuke 'em! Nuke 'em NOW!" and John Kennedy had to just about beat him with a baseball bat to get him to settle down. I've seen the documentary film of the cabinet discussions where LeMay says "let's nuke 'em" about 6 times in one 30 minute meeting.

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But . .

Germany still had access to industrial products (and support) from less damaged nations to rebuild. That would not be the case in this scenario.

That's without even worrying about irradiated food, land, water, etc.

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One detonation several times larger than the tests?

Hardly. The Tsar Bomba alone (50 megaton) would absolutely dwarf the combined total of any nuclear exchange short of all out war between the US and Russia!

In a limited exchange, no one is going to be using hydrogen bombs with multi megaton yields. First of all, because the countries involved would be unlikely to have the technology to design a hydrogen bomb, but also because the technology to deliver your bomb accurately is far better than it was in the 50s when we were in this crazy race to see who could build the bigger bomb. No one has giant bombs like that in their inventory any more, because they aren't practical - or necessary since MIRVs were invented. It was more of a PR pissing match that fortunately was overtaken by the Space Race.

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"90% mortality in one year"

Probably not in one year, but if you take away all the industrial infrastructure that keeps us going then I have to wonder what level of population is sustainable afterwards.

For most of history, world population has been stable. In particular, there's a stonking great flatline from the peak of the Roman Empire across to the Renaissance where technology didn't (much) improve and so the Malthusian limit remained stubbornly put. Going back even to early 19th century levels of *available* technology would take away a lot of our ability to grow, let alone distribute, food to an over-sized population.

On the other hand, we *have* the know-how, at least for a few decades, and that might be enough to bootstrap things. We don't have to repeat all the mistakes of history. (For example, we can get the frigging plumbing sorted without having to spend several generations puzzled about all the cholera outbreaks.)

It's an interesting puzzle, as long as it remains a what-if.

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"the economy would be destroyed but people would survive"

So we'd be fine as long as the invading aliens have some sort of Marshall Plan to keep us fed for the several years until we've rebuilt enough of the economy to feed ourselves, and also to police the world against the inevitable nut-jobs who would reckon there was still something worth fighting for.

Edit: and those 1000-plane raids ... they were equivalent to *one*, *small*, nuke. There's a reason why the Japanese surrendered so fast. (They didn't know the US had run out of bombs.)

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Re: "90% mortality

> if nukes launched we'd have over 90% mortality in one year. The electrical grid would go down, and then it wouldn't be rebuild for a very, very long time.

At least we'd only need to rebuild it to 10% of today's capacity!

But seriously, for some grim, depressing viewing - though accurate - try 'Threads (1984)': https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Threads

In its depiction of a nuclear winter, it makes post-apocalyptic films look like a walk in the park.

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Mushroom

Even if it was 90% mortality (which I doubt) the human race would survive...

I heard some organization in the US (FEMA?) once did a study of the results of an EMP strong enough to knock out all the infrastructure in North America. Their conclusion was apparently 80% mortality after the first year. That's WITHOUT ANY nukes going off.

If you think those numbers are an exaggeration, you should do a little research on how much food the average city uses in a single day, and consider what would happen when that entire flow disappears.

No electrical systems working = no farm equipment working, and no way of transporting food, even if there was any. Good luck living through a NA winter without emergency power generators. Rural regions (who are used to roughing it) may not do so badly, until waves of starving urbanites show up and start taking supplies from them. I think the mortality rate in most cities would be far greater than 90% after a few years. Throw in wide-spread cannibalism and disease, and it isn't a world most would want to live in.

The fact most 'advanced' cultures have a population with zero survival skills, and little of the 'primitive' know how our ancestors once had, only adds to the mess.

90% is probably a pipe dream.

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Re: Even if it was 90% mortality (which I doubt) the human race would survive...

How are the "waves of starving urbanites" going to get to the rural areas? Walk? They'll be pretty easy to pick off as the rural residents are the ones with the rifles, if the urbanites have guns they'll be handguns only useful far closer than the kill range of a rifle.

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Re: "90% mortality in one year"

"It's an interesting puzzle, as long as it remains a what-if."

Hiroshima and Nagasaki were nuked to rubble.

Today, aside from the monuments, you'd never know it happened if you visit them.

A real world scenario, hardly a 'what-if'.

Despite their general idiocy, Humans as a whole can be tenacious and inventively industrious when push comes to shove.*

*See also; London after the Blitz.

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> Even if it was 90% mortality (which I doubt) the human race would survive.

You're right to doubt. Whilst the multi-megaton bombs scared the shit out of people during the Cold War the reality was that by the mid 1960s targetting accuracy was good enough that only 50-150kt weapons were being used for strategic weapons (only slightly smaller on tactical nukes)

There's almost nothing left now over 100kt (most of the H-bombs can be dialled from 5-150kt, but the standard setting is around 50kt or less and antisubmarine ones can be dialled as low as 0.3kt). In any case nuclear weapons are an expensive boondoggle that noone can actually use. War simulations verified that to the point where it was reported in 1979 that US military commanders who used nuclear weapons in battlefield simulations only ever did so once. In all subsequent simulation runs they'd surrender rather than nuke even if the _other_ guy was tossing nukes.

The best use for nukes now is to expand the swords-to-plowshears program.

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> There's a reason why the Japanese surrendered so fast. (They didn't know the US had run out of bombs.)

Untrue.

They were already contemplating surrender and the amount of damage the US had already inflicted on Japan(*) meant that news of the scale of the Nagasaki and Hiroshima bombs didn't arrive for several days. As far as the japanese hierarchy was concerned it was just another massive US air attack

(*) Most large cities had already been bombed flat and the death toll from one night raid on Tokyo was higher than either of the nuclear bombs.

The bombs did provide enough impetus to push the remaining hawks in the japanese military to one side and surrender quickly, but they may have surrendered in a few months anyway.

The USA didn't know that at the time. Fog of war and all that...

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Re: Even if it was 90% mortality (which I doubt) the human race would survive...

"I heard some organization in the US (FEMA?) once did a study of the results of an EMP strong enough to knock out all the infrastructure in North America. Their conclusion was apparently 80% mortality after the first year. That's WITHOUT ANY nukes going off."

Yes it was FEMA, in the late 1990s. They documented how fragile the US electrical distribution system was and how long it would take to replace the core transformers at risk (several million dollars apiece, 2-3 year construction time, no spares).

The european grid was much more robust - primarily because of much shorter transmission line runs.

This report was in response to the large solar flare which hit earth in 1989 (it knocked out parts of the Canadian power grid) and made people start wondering seriously what effects a Carrington-level solar flare would have (up to that point people were ridiculed as doomsayers, and that's despite a large 1950s event having quite an impact. The difference was in the intervening 40 years electricity had become utterly critical infrastructure).

The USA (and most other countries) have been taking steps to minimise the effects and damage ever since. The biggest problem is induced large DC offsets in transmission lines causing transformers to saturate and overheat but appropriate rejigging of the way things are connected can avoid that happening.

Because the grids are so heavily interconnected an overload failure in one part of the country can rapidly escalate into cascade failures everywhere. It's possible to design more robustness in, but that costs money and accountants won't approve it until they're personally affected.

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Re: Threads film (1984)

Haha I remember being made to watch that at School - really was a scary message at the time, maybe that's why me and my peers at the time didn't give a sh*t about anything much (especially living just a few miles away from the UK's biggest MOD depot!),

we had nothing to look forward to what with Thatchers Britain at the time and horrendous unemployment,

how ever I did leave school unemployed (like my bro and sis before me) and did a Yoouf training scheme in computer programming.

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Re: Even if it was 90% mortality (which I doubt) the human race would survive...

> How are the "waves of starving urbanites" going to get to the rural areas? Walk?

Probably - and it's unlikely that there are enough bullets to stop them (bearing in mind that when you run out of bullets, the surviveors are going to rip you limb-from-limb, so you'd better ensure you have enough before you start shotting)

FEMA and the US environment agency have "urban evacuation" high on their list of worst possible environmental disasters.The only reason we can survive in the kinds of numbers we do is because of heavy population concentrations.

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Re: Not so sure . .

I don't think it would take so long. If you look at how long it took China to go from a backwards third world country to where it is today, it would be similar to that, or a bit quicker. The difference now is that we have all the knowledge and inventions needed to have the infrastructure we have today.

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Re: There's a reason why the Japanese surrendered so fast.

It was the Emperor deciding to quit that tipped the balance. Even after that some of the militarists wanted a coup to keep going.

I watch NHK World a bit. They're still going on about Hiroshima currently. Not a word about Nanking.

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Joke

@ PST

> I was asked, in an interview for a Civil Service job, what would happen if Britain suffered a nuclear attack.

Surely the correct answer was: those carefully selected Civil Servants who had been allocated places in Government shelters would emerge to repopulate the UK with handsome, muscular, hard-working decisive leaders, ready to take us into a glorious future.

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"Radioactive Mutant Civil Servants That Glow In The Dark Take Over!" - film at 11

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Anonymous Coward

Re: Not so sure . .

I'm not so sure it would take longer than that.

We wouldn't be starting from scratch, all knowledge wouldn't be lost and it wouldn't be that much different from progressing from the Victorian Era level of technology to mid 20th Century technology.

Additionally, much tech would survive and would be retrievable. Once you get a basic power grid up and running (even if local), you can then start to access electronic equipment.

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Facepalm

Re: Not so sure . .

Well, good luck sourcing replacement RAM from Korea or getting Microsoft support on the phone to "start to access electronic equipment".

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I remember seeing RAF-operated ballistic missiles on their launch pads, ready to fire. I didn't really know what they carried. then.

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Makes you wonder how things went in Russia that day.

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Anonymous Coward

Why so coy?

'..and a base in the UK's county of Yorkshire'

(or is there another?)

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Anonymous Coward

Re: Why so coy?

Yorkshire? It's all daaarn saaaarf from where I'm sitting. :-P

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Re: Why so coy?

Menwith Hill is communications interception for the NSA - it's not an BMEWS location. That's RAF Fylingdales on the North York Moors.

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Re: Why so coy?

Staxton Wold/ Fylingdales?

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Anonymous Coward

Re: Why so coy

I think maybe this one: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/RAF_Fylingdales

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Anonymous Coward

Wrong lesson, I am afraid

"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," Knipp said. "This was a lesson learned in how important it is to be prepared."

I think the more pertinent lesson is that keeping your hand on the trigger at all times, ready to smite the wicked enemy, is likely to be more dangerous to you than any threat posed by the said enemy. The operation Chrome Dome mentioned in the article is itself a good example of this observation. See "Command and Control" by Eric Schlosser for more information both on the Chrome Dome and on many other crazy schemes which nearly ended up killing everybody during those good old, unlamented days.

I am also afraid that this is the lesson never properly learned, so it will come back to us again.

Edit: Oops, had the Iron Dome instead of the Chrome Dome there. My bad.

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Re: Wrong lesson, I am afraid

I disagree. The more capable a retaliatory strike would be, the less likely the retaliation would be made early.

Trident, for example, could carry on waiting for months after US/UK is sunk into the sea. There's no need to be trigger happy with it.

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Re: Wrong lesson, I am afraid

Trident, for example, could carry on waiting for months after US/UK is sunk into the sea. There's no need to be trigger happy with it.

But with your entire second (or first, for that matter) strike capability staked on a single vulnerable vessel at sea which depends entirely on stealth for its protection, you would have to be pretty damn sure the enemy is not tracking it, and is absolutely incapable of locating it no matter how hard it tries.

Please do not deceive yourself: in the game of the nuclear chicken, there can be no winners; the only survival strategy is not to play.

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Re: Wrong lesson, I am afraid

Of course. But in theory at least, Trident is invulnerable, therefore *less* likely to produce a mistaken second-strike than, for example, the V-force, which required the airbases still be in tact to launch.

Nuclear chicken it may be, but I'd rather play chicken with two equal sized vehicles than be a pedestrian playing against a tank.

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Re: Wrong lesson, I am afraid

Meh, I think I'd prefer to play pedestrian against tank. The only outcomes are stalemate, or the pedestrian loses. Because the tank can never lose, it never has to even bother turning the engine on. The pedestrian can run as fast or as slow as they like, but they won't win. As long as the tank knows this, the worst damage that can be done is by one pillock to his own head as he tries to nut stationary steel plating.

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Re: Wrong lesson, I am afraid

I think this metaphor is getting silly now.

If an adversary has nuclear weapons, and we don't, then we do what they say or else ( eg: get your troops out of Poland, we'd like to take it back, blagodaryu )

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Re: Wrong lesson, I am afraid

not necessarily. For one thing, so long as you have missiles that can reach possible enemy territory, even multiple warhead conventional explosives would be no fun for them to be on the receiving end of ( For another, space is replacing the atmosphere as the new military frontier (or, rather, could, as space is supposed to be demilitarised). If you have the capability to get a decent amount of hardware into space, you don;t even need nukes, large chunks of metal or, at a pinch, even rocks de-orbited onto enemy towns could produce devastation.

With which happy thought in mind, I note that at least one commercial enterprise and the Chinese are focusing on getting set up on the moon in the not too distant future. Hmmmmnn..

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Anonymous Coward

Re: Wrong lesson, I am afraid

@My-Handle: In this scenario are you the pillock, or the tank?

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