Dear Cecil: Two questions: (1) More than once I have heard that World War III could be started by a flock of migrating geese showing up on a radar screen. Is this true? (2) Is it true that the average hurricane has more energy than the average hydrogen bomb? Curious, Chicago
(1) You refer to one of the great legends of the nuclear era. The story, which may be apocryphal, is that in the 1950s a flock of Canadian geese showed up one day on radar screens in the DEW (Distant Early Warning) Line, the string of radar pickets maintained by the U.S. Dept. of Defense above the Arctic Circle. Jumpy technicians supposedly interpreted the blips as Russky bombers, and until cooler heads prevailed several trembling fingers were poised above the buttons that would have reduced the Soviet Union to a puddle of molten glass.
Whether or not this actually happened, there are several well-documented instances of nuclear near-misses that really did occur. In 1960, for instance, nuclear alerts were reportedly triggered by meteor showers and lunar radar reflections. Perhaps the most notorious incident occurred on June 3, 1980. At 2:26 in the morning, alarms went off in the Strategic Air Command’s underground command post in Omaha as display screens showed two Russian sub-based missiles heading toward the U.S. from the North Atlantic. Klaxons awakened bomber and missile crews, and 76 B-52s were prepared for takeoff. Meanwhile, headquarters checked with remote radar stations to see if they could confirm the enemy contact. For 60 seconds things looked tense, but by then the radar stations were reporting that they could find no sign of the Russian missiles. Command post honchos quickly concluded that there was a malfunction in the computer system that relayed battle data, and the bomber crews were ordered to shut off their engines. The alert was terminated at 2:29, three minutes and 12 seconds after it began. Engineers eventually traced the problem to a 46-cent computer chip that had shorted out.
There was a great flurry in the media about the close call, but a Senate inquiry later concluded that the nation hadn’t really come all that close to war. Still, investigators also found that false alarms of one kind or another were a constant occurrence, 3,703 having been reported in the 18 months prior to June, 1980. Most of these were minor, but a few weren’t. For example, on November 9, 1979, some hapless clerical type inadvertently fed a training tape into the main computers at the North American Aerospace Defense Command, giving a false indication of a massive missile attack and scaring the bejeezis out of U.S. military men the world over.
Pentagon officials have admitted that equipment failures cause two or three false alarms every year. Like their counterparts in the nuclear power industry, the officials also claim that the fact that these scares have yet to result in World War III proves the system works. But others say it shows the U.S. defense computer network is dangerously unreliable. The question was never satisfactorily resolved during the cold war, and maybe in these marginally more peaceful times it doesn’t matter as much. But as long as the U.S. and Russia maintain vast nuclear arsenals only a fool would say it doesn’t matter at all.
(2) The average hurricane generates energy roughly equivalent to 400 20-megaton bombs exploding in one day — the equivalent of all the electrical energy used in the U.S. for six months. The biggest known H-bomb, you may remember, is less than 100 megatons. The cleanup after both is a bitch. But still I’d rather have the hurricane than the bomb.
Send questions to Cecil via firstname.lastname@example.org.