Home / WorldTech / A powerful sunstorm probably detonated dozens of US sea mines during the Vietnam War

A powerful sunstorm probably detonated dozens of US sea mines during the Vietnam War

A solar flare on September 26, 2014.
Image: NASA Solar Dynamics Laboratory

An analysis of recently released US military documents confirms the suspicion that during the late stages of the Vietnam War, a strong solar storm has triggered dozens of sea mines explode , It is a blatant reminder of the sun's potential to disrupt our technological activities in unexpected ways.

As part of Operation Pocket Money, the US Navy has created a series of Destructor mines near strategic ports off the North Vietnam coast. A few weeks later, on August 4, 1

972, crew members aboard US Task Force 77 aircraft suddenly witnessed a series of explosions south of Hai Phong. In total, 20 to 30 explosions were documented in just 30 seconds. Another 25-30 spots of muddy water were observed, suggesting further explosions.

It was a bizarre event as there was no reason why the mines should have left. Almost immediately, US officials began to consider extreme solar activity as the cause, as evidenced by recently released US Navy documents. A new study published last month in Space Weather, a publication by the American Geophysical Union, agrees with this 46-year-old assessment and provides new details on this particularly nasty solar storm that bothered more than just marine mines. The authors of the study, led by Delores Knipp of the University of Colorado and Brian Fraser of the National Center for Atmospheric Research, Boulder, say the historical event should serve as a call to action.

The bombs that exploded were magnetic sea mines. a weapon from the First World War. When a ship passes over it, the mine detects a change in magnetic field density, causing a detonation. Within days of the August 1972 incident, US military officials began to wonder if solar activity could have been responsible for the unexpected mine detonations.

As the senior lecturer of RMIT, Brett Carter, reported in The Conversation, the scientists of the 1970s were already aware of the potential of the sun to induce magnetic field changes – they just were not sure if it was strong enough to mine to detonate. As part of its investigation, the US military sent civil servants to the Space Environment Laboratory of the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) near Boulder, Colorado. After consulting with scientists, the investigators concluded with "high probability" that solar storm activity is responsible for the seemingly spontaneous destruction of magnetic mines.

Buried for almost 50 decades, these newly released documents were re-analyzed by the Knipp and Fraser team. In fact, August 1972 experienced intense solar activity – some of the strongest ever recorded.

Between August 2 and 4, Sunspot MR 11976 shot out a series of solar flares, coronal mass ejections, and charged particle clouds (referred to as "plasma drivers" in the 1970s). The coronal mass ejection that caused the mine to explode reached Earth in just 14.6 hours – a record for such an event (usually it takes a day or two for these electromagnetic pulses to reach the planet's geomagnetic field and produce magnetic storms ). The reason for the speed, say the authors, is that two previous Sun's pulses from August 2 cleared the way to our planet, resulting in an "ultrafast" mass ejection on Aug. 4. In addition to detonating the mines, the solar storm causes blackouts and telegraph outages, Carter reports.

"Based on the evidence presented, we state that the event of 4 August 1972 was a Carrington-class storm," write the authors in the study. "The transit time for this event was shorter than the Carrington event."

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At the Carrington incident, the researchers refer to a strong geomagnetic solar storm of 1859. It is still one of the strongest solar storm records. A similar event today would cause severe disruption, shutting down satellites and power grids, and, as the new study shows, technologies we do not even know are vulnerable.

In conclusion, the authors of the study say the 1972 storm is worth further investigation, and suggest that other researchers summarize their archival data to learn more. No doubt we become more vulnerable to these extreme solar events the more we rely on technology. Knowing as much as possible about geomagnetic storms could prevent a lot of grief.

[Space Weather via The Conversation]

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