Nuclear weapons tests have altered near-Earth space weather, according to a new NASA study that examined newly-declassified data.
The study, published Thursday, found that Cold War-era nuclear weapons tests created artificial radiation belts and auroras typically generated by the sun. The artificial space weather mimicked extremely rare natural phenomena in space and created geomagnetic disturbances capable of shorting out portions of the power grid.
The Soviet Union and the U.S. caused the vast majority of man-made space weather between 1958 and 1962 when they conducted heavily classified high-altitude tests, according to the study. These tests provided scientists with valuable insight into naturally occurring space weather.
“The tests were a human-generated and extreme example of some of the space weather effects frequently caused by the sun,” Dr. Phil Erickson, an observatory director at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and co-author of the research, said in a press statement. “If we understand what happened in the somewhat controlled and extreme event that was caused by one of these human-made events, we can more easily understand the natural variation in the near-space environment.”
Atmospheric nuclear testing ended in 1962 and the present space environment remains dominated by natural phenomena, but the declassified documents provide valuable insight into how natural space weather would impact civilian and military infrastructure.
In the summer of 1859, a coronal mass ejection from the sun struck, creating the largest geomagnetic storm on record. The storm was so powerful it caused telegraph machines around the world to spark, shocking operators and setting papers ablaze. The event released the same amount of energy as 10 billion atomic bombs.
Researchers estimate that a similar event today would cause $600 billion to $2.6 trillion in damages to the U.S. alone. National Geographic theorized that this event would destroy much of the internet, take down all satellite communications, and almost certainly knock out most of the global electrical grid. The Earth would only get about 20 hours of warning.
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