How Human War Affected the Weather in Space


Scientists reviewing newly declassified documents say that Cold War–era weapons tests disrupted the Earth's magnetic and electrical fields. They published their report in the journal Space Science Reviews.

For a very brief period from 1958 to 1962, both the U.S. and the U.S.S.R. launched nuclear weapons into space to see what would happen. The weapons zoomed out into the blackness and detonated.

Stuff explodes in space all the time. Roughly 275 million stars die and are born every day. Our own Sun roils, burps, and flares, sending solar winds full of atomic particles toward us and the other planets in our system. And like a stone thrown into a stream, each event causes ripples in the flowing magnetic, electrical, and radiation fields nearby.

The nuclear tests made similar but unusual splashes.

The Teak test, launched over the North Pacific on August 1, 1958, produced charged particles that swept along Earth’s magnetic field into the sky above Western Samoa. That night, astronomers at the Apia Observatory saw an aurora—a sight not usually seen there.

The Argus tests, also in 1958, went higher than any test had before, sending particles zipping far off across the space above our planet, causing intense but brief magnetic storms in Arizona and Sweden.

Other tests produced radiation belts, and the resulting electrical disturbances damaged nearby satellites.

“The tests were a human-generated and extreme example of some of the space weather effects frequently caused by the Sun,” co-author Phil Erickson of MIT’s Haystack Observatory said in a statement.

“If we understand what happened in the somewhat controlled and extreme event that was caused by one of these man-made events, we can more easily understand the natural variation in the near-space environment."