Faux Pas

How Did Lightning Nearly Trigger World War III?

How did superbolt lightning nearly trigger World War III?

Alarms sounded in military installations all around the world, reporting the unthinkable. A nuclear detonation had just been detected in Bell Island, Newfoundland. Satellites designed to notify military and government leaders of the beginning of humanity’s final war picked up the massive bright flash of light and sent the signals to prepare for the end of the world.

As technicians rushed to check for malfunctions and verify the reports, military strategists scratched their heads in confusion. There were a few reasons to be suspicious. For one thing, early warning systems had not detected any missile launch, nor was there any unusual posturing by the Soviet Union. For another reason, although the small island with roughly 2,500 inhabitants was unquestionably a beautiful vacation spot, it wasn’t exactly a place of strategic military importance. Certainly, it was on no one’s list of potential sites for the first strike of World War III.

Bell Island is approximately 6 miles long and 2 miles wide. It once claimed the distinction of being one of the world’s major iron ore producers, but those days were in the past. The island’s iron mine was closed and the once-prosperous economy went into decline. By the latter half of the 20th century, Bell Island was a sleepy community that few people noticed.

All of that changed abruptly on Sunday, April 2, 1978. Without warning, the sleepy silence was shattered by an explosion of unimaginable power. As many of the residents were making their way to church that morning, an enormous burst of noise, energy, and light got everyone’s attention. The island’s power grid instantly went into overload. The power lines, unable to handle the sudden surge of energy, melted and cast floating balls of fire from their smoking remains. Televisions exploded. Arcs of electricity burst from the walls of houses and shot across rooms. Animals all over the island were electrocuted. Terrified residents took cover, wondering if this was the last day of their lives.

The same question was being asked in places such as NORAD and the Los Alamos National Laboratory. If satellites were correct and the Bell Island incident was the first strike of a surprise Soviet attack, a decision to launch a counter-attack had to be made within minutes, or it would be too late.

Thankfully, cooler heads prevailed, and those who controlled the fingers that were poised to smash the Big Red Button concluded that it was unlikely the Soviets would invite the end of the world by wiping out Bell Island. This supposition was supported by the absence of follow-up blasts, so everyone took a deep, calming breath and set to work trying to figure out what just happened.

More questions arose, however, when weapons researchers from the Los Alamos Laboratory showed up. Looking decidedly conspicuous, they wandered the community, scanning for radiation and anything else that might disclose whether a previously unknown weapon had been unleashed on Bell Island. Although their investigation did not reveal anything particularly sinister, their sudden appearance rattled the nerves of the residents. It wasn’t long before the rumor mill started churning out fantastic stories of a “super weapon” test gone awry.

So what was it that frightened the community, set nerves on edge at NORAD, and had the potential to trigger World War III? After nearly 45 years, the answer is not entirely clear, but it appears that the world came to the edge of Armageddon because of a lightning strike.

The lightning strike in question was not your typical bolt out of the blue. The prevailing hypothesis is that Bell Island experienced a “superbolt.” Superbolts are remarkable natural phenomena that last about a thousandth of a second. Compared to the typical lightning bolt that lasts for about 30 millionths of a second, the superbolt transfers an unbelievable amount of power. In that brief time, a superbolt can generate 100 gigawatts of electricity. By way of context, the total electrical power generated by all of the solar panels and wind turbines in the United States during 2018 was about 163 gigawatts.

“The Mystery of Superbolt Lightning” from Inside Science.

Only about five out of every 10 million lightning bolts can be classified as a superbolt. When they occur, however, the results are beyond impressive. One year after the Bell Island incident, satellites detected a double flash in the upper atmosphere over South Africa’s southern seas. Accusations were immediately made against South Africa for conducting an above-ground nuclear weapons test. Another tossed a 600-pound Michigan church belfry more than 300 yards. Another, on May 21, 2012, awoke folks in Tulsa at 3:30 a.m. with earthquake-like shaking. The blast set off car alarms a half-mile from the impact site and even shifted one resident’s bed four feet from its original position.

Fortunately, in the case of the Bell Island incident, cooler heads prevailed, and the superbolt did not trigger the start of World War III. As a result, humanity has been given more time to attempt to understand the phenomenon and hopefully to better be able to distinguish between an awesome spectacle of nature and a preemptive nuclear attack.

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