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May 19, 2017

Cold War-era nuclear tests conducted by the United States and Russia at high altitudes negatively affected the weather in space, reveals a new paper published in Space Science Reviews using recently declassified data.

Among other effects, the tests "created artificial radiation belts near Earth that resulted in major damages to several satellites." The radiation also damaged power stations in Hawaii and produced aurora (commonly called "Northern Lights") at the equator instead of close to the Earth's North and South Poles.

"The tests were a human-generated and extreme example of some of the space weather effects frequently caused by the sun," said Phil Erickson of MIT, one of the paper's authors, in an interview with NASA. Still, he added, the weather distortion offers scientists useful information today: "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."

Watch a one-minute explanation of the study's findings below. Bonnie Kristian