..

The Conversation

  • Written by Brett Carter, Senior lecturer, RMIT University

An extraordinary account of the impact space weather had on military operations in Vietnam in 1972 was found buried in the US Navy archives, according to a newly published article in Space Weather.

On August 4, 1972, the crew of a US Task Force 77 aircraft flying near a naval minefield in the waters off Hon La observed 20 to 25 explosions over about 30 seconds. They also witnessed an additional 25 to 30 mud spots in the waters nearby.

Read more: It's never been more important to keep an eye on space weather

Destructor sea mines had been deployed here during Operation Pocket Money, a mining campaign launched in 1972 against principal North Vietnamese ports.

There was no obvious reason why the mines should have detonated. But it has now emerged the US Navy soon turned its attention to extreme solar activity at the time as a probable cause.

The more we can understand the impact of such space weather on technology then the better we can be prepared for any future extreme solar activity.

A solar theory

As detailed in a now declassified US Navy report, the event sparked an immediate investigation about the potential cause(s) of the random detonations of so many sea mines.

The sea mines deployed had a self-destruct feature. But the minimum self-destruct time on these mines was not for another 30 days, so something else was to blame.

On August 15, 1972, the Commander in Chief of the US Pacific Fleet, Admiral Bernard Clarey, asked about a hypothesis that solar activity could have caused the mine detonations.

Many of the mines deployed were magnetic influence sea mines that were designed to detonate when they detected changes in the magnetic field.

Solar activity was then well known to cause magnetic field changes, but it wasn’t clear whether or not the Sun could cause these unintentional detonations.

Solar flares

Early August in 1972 saw some of the most intense solar activity ever recorded.

A sunspot region, denoted MR 11976, set off a series of intense solar flares (energetic explosions of electromagnetic radiation), coronal mass ejections (eruptions of solar plasma material that typically accompany flares) and clouds of charged particles travelling close to the speed of light.

Those conducting the investigation into the mine incident visited the Space Environment Laboratory at the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) near Boulder, Colorado, to speak to space scientists.

One of the scientists at NOAA at the time was the now Emeritus Professor Brian Fraser, from Australia’s Newcastle University, and it’s an event he told me he remembers well:

I was on my first sabbatical leave at NOAA working with Wallace (Wally) Campbell’s group, and one day in Wally’s office I noticed a group of US Navy brass hat gentlemen and a couple of dark suits.

Brian said he had later quizzed Wally on what was going on, and Wally explained they were concerned about geomagnetic field changes triggering sea mines laid in Hai Phong, North Vietnam.

There was no mention whether or not they had exploded but maybe Wally was being coy. And of course it was all probably top secret then.

The outcome of this investigation, as stated in the declassified US Navy report, detailed “a high degree of probability” that the Destructor mines had been detonated by the August solar storm activity.

how massive solar eruptions 'probably' detonated dozens of US sea mines Declassified: excerpt from U.S. Navy Report, Mine Warfare Project Office - The Mining of North Vietnam, 8 May 1972 to 14 January 1973. 1070416001, Glenn Helm Collection, The Vietnam Center and Archive, Texas Tech University

Solar interference

Solar storms cause strong magnetic field fluctuations, which impact large power grid infrastructure, particularly in the high-latitude regions beneath the northern and southern auroras.

Solar flares captured by NASA and ESA.

The storms of early August 1972 were no different. There were numerous reports across North America of power disruptions and telegraph line outages. Now that light has been shone on the impact of these events on sea mine operations in 1972, the scientific community has another clear example of space weather impacts on technologies.

The intensity of the early August activity peaked when an X-class solar flare at 0621 UT August 4, 1972, launched an ultra-fast coronal mass ejection that reached Earth in the record time of 14.6 hours. The solar wind normally takes two to three days to reach Earth.

Scientists think that the previous slower ejections from earlier flares had cleared the path for this fast disturbance, similar to what was observed by the STEREO spacecraft in July 2012.

It’s the impact of this fast disturbance in the solar wind on the Earth’s magnetosphere that probably caused the detonation of the Destructor mines.

Using the past to predict the future

The Dst index, measured in nano-Tesla (nT), is a typical measure of the disturbance level in the Earth’s magnetic field – the more negative, the more intense the storm.

Some recent extreme solar storms, according to this scale, include the 2015 St Patrick’s Day storm (-222 nT) and the 2003 Halloween storm (-383 nT).

Read more: What the 'weather' is like on a star can help in the search for life

Interestingly, the extreme activity in August 1972 was far less intense on this scale, only weighing in at -125 nT.

Exactly why this storm reached extreme level on some measures, such as its high speed from the Sun, but not on the typical Dst scale is a topic of significant discussion within the scientific literature.

Given the complexities of this event, this new paper lays out a grand challenge to the space weather community to use our modern modelling techniques to reexamine this solar event. Hopefully, understanding these strange events will better prepare us for future solar eruptions.

Authors: Brett Carter, Senior lecturer, RMIT University

Read more http://theconversation.com/blasts-from-the-past-how-massive-solar-eruptions-probably-detonated-dozens-of-us-sea-mines-105983

Politics

Central and North Queenslanders overwhelmingly back coal sector

More than 80 per cent of young people in Central and North Queensland believe the coal sector and the jobs it creates are critical to the state’s economy, particularly regional Queensland.   Mi...

Senator Canavan - avatar Senator Canavan

AWU National Secretary Daniel Walton on steel industry

Ambitious expansion plans make mockery of those who wrote off Australian steel industry GFG Alliance's planned rejuvenation of the Whyalla steelworks, and the Australian steel industry more generall...

Media Release - avatar Media Release

George Neophytou supports roads funding and more

Independent candidate for Gippsland East George Neophytou has pledged to support completion of duplication of the Princes Highway between Traralgon and Sale and to upgrading of the Sale alternative ...

George Neophytou Media Release - avatar George Neophytou Media Release

Business News

10 Excellent Business Ideas for Young Entrepreneurs in 2019-2020

Top 10 Low-Budget Business Ideas for Students in 2019 Whoever said that you should wait for 10 or even more years after your graduation to launch your own business? 69% of US citizens start their ...

Elsa Avendano - avatar Elsa Avendano

The 1-Page Marketing Plan

SKIP BUSINESS SCHOOL. READ THIS NEW BOOK INSTEAD. Named as one of the “10 best marketing books for small business owners” by The Huffington Post.   MEDIA RELEASE: MELBOURNE, DECEMBER 13, 2018 —...

Claire Marshall - avatar Claire Marshall

How to Empower Your Employees in 2019

Employee empowerment is the focus of many employers in this present day. The reality is that although you may hire competent and qualified professionals, you still need to invest in building them up...

News Company - avatar News Company

Travel

Road Trip On Your Mind? Keep These Aspects In Mind As Well

Take a Road Trip! The great road trip. Movies are made of this type of freedom. The roads are calling and you are feeling the need for a road trip. Join millions of other people who enjoy the great o...

News Company - avatar News Company

Best Short Term Accommodation in Brisbane

Brisbane, the capital city of Queensland in Australia is known for its museum and Science center. With a lot of creative spaces and gardens on the riverside, it is a magnificent and popular destinat...

News Company - avatar News Company

Best Short-term Accommodations in Sydney

If you are looking to spend a night or two in the sprawling city of Sydney, you might be in need of a lodging place or hotel to stay. We would like to give you here a list of the best short term acc...

News Company - avatar News Company