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So, I’m writing a sci-fi story, which has a setting which involves human colonists crash landing on a massive, icy hellhole. The weather is extreme on the surface, and because of it, wireless communication is useless, so for settlements to connect with each other, they need to physically move messages to other settlements, or use wired communication.

This is meant to give everything an air of mystery and desperation. The humans had been able to survive for hundreds of years, stranded without the ability to call for help. This brings them back to the medieval age, practically.

So, what I’m asking essentially, is there any way that a planet’s climate could block all/most wireless signals? Without that, the worldbuilding of the story pretty much falls apart.

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  • $\begingroup$ Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. $\endgroup$ – L.Dutch Jan 26 at 5:54
  • $\begingroup$ Are your settlements underground or above ground? If the weather is so extreme only underground settlements will survive, that will definitely influence answers. $\endgroup$ – Mast Jan 27 at 17:34

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They can use radio communication. It's just a bad idea.

The planet is a hellhole, but life finds a way, and it still has native life. Including a super predator that likes the taste of humans. But super predators need a lot of territory, so these monsters (I'm going to call them bearasaurs) live mostly solitary lives.

It turns out that finding a mate when you live by yourself in a constant snowstorm is quite difficult, so the bearasaurs have developed natural radio communication as a way of finding each other when it's time to mate.

Which means that whenever the humans try to use a radio, they immediately get attacked by a horny bearasaur. (Okay, probably not immediately. Given the amount of range each bearasaur would have to have to make this plausible, it'd be a couple of days at least, maybe even a month or two unless the bears move really quickly. But that's still enough to make radio unusable at any permanent settlements.)


There are lots of things you can do with natural wildlife if you don't like bearasaurs. Evolution can do a lot of weird things, and I don't think it would take too much handwaving to have the local wildlife hog all the useful frequencies.

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    $\begingroup$ Radiosaurs is the real name $\endgroup$ – exebook Jan 24 at 8:35
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    $\begingroup$ If the bearasaurs are spread over a large area and take days/months to appear, it would probably not be obvious to the humans that radio communication is the reason (rather than being random events, or due to hearing/smell/etc). Perhaps they could pick up the mating signals on their radios though, which could be a clue. $\endgroup$ – ping Jan 24 at 18:39
  • $\begingroup$ What of other frequencies? Microwaves, for examples? $\endgroup$ – Matthieu M. Jan 24 at 20:50
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    $\begingroup$ 1. Set up a powerful transmitter operating in bearasaurus mating call band, 2. Wait few months, 3. Go on with your activities as usual, including radio comms. Free bonus - you now have perpetual source of fresh bearasauruses. $\endgroup$ – void_ptr Jan 24 at 21:06
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    $\begingroup$ This is a clever answer, but flawed in reality. At most, the bearasaurs would be able to detect only a fraction of the EM band. Biologic radio detectors cannot function over the the entire spectrum. Since lasers are tightly controlled beams that could be transmitted at elevation, they would never be detected by the bearasaurs $\endgroup$ – Gary Walker Jan 25 at 12:49
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No, it is not possible for a natural climate phenomenon to block all wireless communication.

There is a tremendous range of useful wireless frequencies. You can find phenomena that block some of the ranges in common use on this planet, but no such phenomena will block all frequencies.

Furthermore, nothing prevents people from using a series of towers to pick up a weak signal, amplify and rebroadcast it. In fact, that is exactly what we used to do in the US and Europe. With this method you can always send a focused signal to the next tower in the chain that will be successful.

By selecting appropriate frequencies, any natural blocking could certainly be bypassed.

If you want to jam signals by transmitting a stronger signal at the same frequency, you can of course do so. Buy I cannot imagine any natural source of intense broad spectrum noise on any inhabitable planet.

I would like to add that visible light is part of the EM spectrum, and that lasers are quite effective for transmitting information over significant distances. If the atmosphere blocks light, it also blocks life.

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    $\begingroup$ "that is exactly what we used to do" - and still do. $\endgroup$ – immibis Jan 23 at 23:36
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    $\begingroup$ How about widespread naturally occurring spark gap transmitters? $\endgroup$ – R.. Jan 24 at 1:06
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    $\begingroup$ It may be worth adding to your first point that, unless the humans are going to be blinded, the atmosphere cannot completely block visible light, and visible light is entirely capable of transferring data over significant ranges. It's somewhat less effective for setting up pervasive area-networks, but focused communication between settlements would be fine. $\endgroup$ – Kamil Drakari Jan 24 at 14:59
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    $\begingroup$ Along these lines, if you did not fully block visible light, a chain of towers with fires in them to warn of enemy attacks a. la. Roman or Chinese walls would technically count as wireless communication via EM radiation. $\endgroup$ – Cort Ammon Jan 24 at 17:15
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    $\begingroup$ Heavy enough storms with high electrical activity can block wireless transmissions. It would have to be an extreme event. $\endgroup$ – Michael H. Jan 24 at 21:39
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Sand storms can obstacle microwave communications (ref):

Microwave attenuation increases with particle size and concentration, and moisture, as does phase shift. Refractive indices and loss tangents increase with particle density and moisture content multipath propagations. Severe local sandstorms can incapacitate terrestrial microwave radio links, especially in summer when humidity is high.

Dust storms on Mars are known for affecting communication link.

A land swiped by constant sandstorms is indeed desperate, though you need to find a way to make it long term survivable.

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  • $\begingroup$ What about VHF? $\endgroup$ – immibis Jan 23 at 23:35
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    $\begingroup$ Sandstorm you say? cracks glowsticks $\endgroup$ – James Trotter Jan 24 at 8:31
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    $\begingroup$ This is the fundamental premise of the game Spec Ops: The Line. So, this should work in a fictional setting. $\endgroup$ – Sayak Mukhopadhyay Jan 24 at 8:36
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Not a climate feature in the strict sense, but the lack of ionosphere would be a big obstacle to long-distance communications.
Without the possibility for radiowaves to bounce against it, it wouldn't be possible to broadcast to a receiver behind the horizon (of course, you could partially overcome this problem by building very high pylons and placing your antennas on top of them).
In this case, probably you should motivate the lack of ionosphere in a way that doesn't modify the climate of the planet. Maybe low UV radiation from the main star... Or very strong ascensional winds that continuously mix the atmosphere at every height, so that there isn't a ionized stratum of air.

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    $\begingroup$ "Without the possibility for radiowaves to bounce against [the ionosphere], it wouldn't be possible to broadcast to a receiver behind the horizon": (1) longwave broadacasts; (2) repeaters. Only shortwave radio broadcasts rely on the skywave being reflected by the ionosphere. Longwave broadcasts rely on the groundwave following the curvature of the Earth and going around mountains; and ultrashortwave broadcasts are not reflected by the ionosphere and need repeaters to cover a nation's territory. $\endgroup$ – AlexP Jan 24 at 1:28
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    $\begingroup$ AT&T Long Lines used microwave relay towers to span the entire United States. Those are strictly line-of-sight. $\endgroup$ – Mark Jan 24 at 5:43
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A plausible starting point is the spark gap transmitter, which has extremely wide bandwidth (almost DC to light) and is so horribly interference-generating that it's been illegal worldwide for nearly a century. I'm not sure if you could get the same effect naturally-occurring, but perhaps with some combination of continuous electrical storms, pure metal and mineral deposits, etc. it might be possible to have the planet covered almost full-time in broad-spectrum noise.

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If the native "rock" of your planet had a high enough concentration of iron... and the surface layers of that rock had long since degraded to small pebbles, dusts and rust deposits... and there were high speed sandstorms frequently... and concomitant lightning... (as stated in an earlier answer, this does mostly preclude the entire planet always being a frozen ball) you might see such huge magnetic flux being generated in those storms to drive signal-to-noise ratios beyond acceptable limits without huge resource expenditures.

For non weather based lightning, look to the red lightning often generated during pyroclastic flows in volcanic eruptions (I still vividly remember seeing that as a kid when St. Helens blew) as huge volumes of silica dust are driven at extreme speed - there is still much discussion about whether the primary mechanism is triboelectric or fractoemission - see Wikipedia Volcanic Lightning for more details.

But - frame challenge here - I think a better, simpler dodge would be that there are life-forms on this hell-hole planet, and they are somewhat equivalent to whale-sized moles in that to avoid surface exposure they live an entirely subterranean existence: their food source is mineral, their cellular biology is silicon-sulfide-cyanide based, and they communicate, albeit not in a sophisticated manner (they are not high sophonts, unlike our whales) via RF broadcasts, on a medium wide frequency range, at incredibly high output power. Think whale songs on Earth, rebounding and echoing a low frequencies all across the planet's oceans. Not only are their actual signals both disruptive and unpredictable, the mineral deposits in the planet's outer crust often interact with that huge RF dump when a whale-mole is close by, generating secondary signals, huge static charges etc etc. They frequency shift as they feel they need to reach each other across varying distances, with no regard for what others may need those frequencies for, because they neither can imagine others using that RF for anything besides bellowing about food, mates or territory, nor change their primarily instinctive behaviour were they aware of our colonist's attempted use of RF.

Or if you prefer them to be more whale like (that is sophonts we just don't understand) perhaps to them the RF is a sacred space for poetry about the beauty of the radioactive deposits they migrate between in their unceasing peregrinations through the lava-tube filled, unstable crust of their world... and so any aliens trying to use it for comms would need to be either drowned out in volume and beauty, taught not to profane the sacred RF, or crushed to rubble beneath a self-sacrificing whale-mole's capacious flanks.

Just a couple quick ideas - hope some of this helps somehow!

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How about the thing disallowing communication not being the planet itself? The crashlanding might have damaged whatever special antennas your ship needed for interstellar wireless communication, and after first few decades whatever was left of the spaceship that could be easily made into wireless transmitter/receiver is also broken.

Then your colonists had a lot of work to even survive and didn't have the time necessary to build a wireless communication device from scratch. Now, after few generations they may have learned to mine iron and other metals, but the knowledge required to make radio might have failed to be passed on, or they simply may not have the technology required (do you think a person in 900 could have created a radio if someone told him how to do it?)

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  • $\begingroup$ Welcome to Worldbuilding, Viki! If you have a moment, please take the tour and visit the help center to learn more about the site. You may also find Worldbuilding Meta and The Sandbox useful. Here is a meta post on the culture and style of Worldbuilding.SE, just to help you understand our scope and methods, and how we do things here. Have fun! $\endgroup$ – Gryphon Jan 24 at 14:01
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If the planet orbited a flaring red dwarf at a distance that allowed it to keep an atmosphere, but it would be constantly pummeled by solar flares. This could wreck havoc to electronics on the surface, and most life on it as well.

If you play this in with the magnetosphere (I think a weak one would cause the effects you are looking for) and an over saturated ionosphere then RF signals may be hampered. This is not a weather phenomenon, but the sun does play into the climate.

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  • $\begingroup$ If it was that close to the star, and that many solar flares it doesn't meet the criteria of an icy hell hole as the OP stated. $\endgroup$ – cybernard Jan 24 at 1:27
  • $\begingroup$ Not necessarily. Orbiting a flaring red dwarf near the outer edge of the conservative habitable zone, it is still assumed that the planet will still be bombarded by powerful solar flairs, causing massive geomagnetic storms. It has been noted that TRAPPIS 1 experiences solar flairs that can have the same magnitude as the Carrington Event, one of the worst geomagnetic storms on record. TRAPPIST 1G is the 6th planet of the system, thought to be frozen, but yet would be subject to these storms. $\endgroup$ – sonvar Feb 2 at 2:43
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Not impossible but you don't have to worry anyway.

Due to the technical difficulty of building an ELF transmitter, the U.S., Russia, and India are the only nations known to have constructed ELF communication facilities. – Communication with submarines

But there is Ultra low frequency which also travels through the earth.

Radio amateurs and electronics hobbyists have used this mode for limited range communications using audio power amplifiers connected to widely spaced electrode pairs hammered into the soil.

There'd have to be something real funny going on inside your planet's core and with the atmosphere... maybe that's why the weather's so crazy.

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  • $\begingroup$ The data rates for ELF transmissions are measured in fractional bits per second, and require massive amounts of power to compensate for the inefficiency of using too-small antennas (a proper quarter-wave antenna for ELF would stretch most of the way around the planet). The only reason they're used for communicating with submarines is that nothing else works. $\endgroup$ – Mark Jan 24 at 5:47
  • $\begingroup$ Well, when "nothing else works".... $\endgroup$ – Mazura Jan 24 at 16:33
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How about; It's not necessarily impossible to use wireless communication. It's just that the surface is hazardous to people (for some reason, sandstorms, electric storms, giant ducks with huge feet) and the planet has so much tiny iron deposits that every underground dwelling works like a Faraday cage.

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  • $\begingroup$ How can an iron deficiency make every underground dwelling a Faraday cage? $\endgroup$ – L.Dutch Jan 24 at 10:13
  • $\begingroup$ What would keep people from poking antennas up to the surface? $\endgroup$ – Mark Jan 24 at 10:17
  • $\begingroup$ I see that I have been unclear, what I meant was that the ground has so much iron deposits that it works like a Faraday cage. The "tiny deposits" parts was my attempt to indicate that it was granular and spaced out like a cage. English is not my first language, and I'm no geologist ;) And regarding the antennas, if enough storm and/or lightning activity the antennas would be destroyed/work as lightning rods... $\endgroup$ – Christian Wattengård Jan 24 at 14:07
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    $\begingroup$ I came to answer along these lines. The reason you can't put an antenna on the surface is the premise of the question: the weather is too extreme. Extreme hailstorms and/or sandstorms destroy any antenna within a matter of days. It's not impossible, it's just not a viable use of resources. $\endgroup$ – K. Morgan Jan 24 at 15:56
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    $\begingroup$ I could write an entire novel about giant ducks with huge feet ... $\endgroup$ – IconDaemon Jan 27 at 16:39
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You can communicate through the ground using seismographs and some form of Morse code as a last resort. There is no way to completely block all wireless communication unless you can block sound. Maybe if your world was made out of sand but even then packed sand will transmit sound wirelessly. In retrospect a solar flare would destroy any electrical device capable of producing sound through matter. When we speak and using body language we are communicating wirelessly. A habitat that is that inhospitable humans would probably have to live underground or underwater.

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    $\begingroup$ You seem to be answering a completely different question here - "how to communicate if all wireless signals are blocked" vs. "how to block all wireless signals", which is what's actually being asked. $\endgroup$ – F1Krazy Jan 24 at 18:57
  • $\begingroup$ The answer to both those questions is not unless you can block all signals above and below ground +1 $\endgroup$ – Mazura Jan 25 at 0:56
  • $\begingroup$ @F1Krazy - what's actually being asked is "make wireless communication irrelevant". You need to edit the title if the question is otherwise. $\endgroup$ – Mazura Jan 26 at 1:14
  • $\begingroup$ The only relevant thing to say is that atmospheric conditions don't matter to wireless forms of communication that travel through the ground. $\endgroup$ – Mazura Jan 26 at 1:17
  • $\begingroup$ I see the question as, I've handwaved surface conditions so that all open air traveling communication is useless, so what could they use? : the several other options that are still on the table. Basically it's a question of, what forms of commutation are not perturbed by atmospheric conditions. Obviously : the ones that travel though solid rock. $\endgroup$ – Mazura Jan 26 at 1:29
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While it is impossible to make all communication impossible - if you put enough wattage in your signal it can transmit through nearly everything, even a faraday's cage has a non zero resistance and thus can be transmitted through. The only exception are black holes are the actual photons can't translate, but I doubt you want this to happen inside a blackhole.... There are ways that the signal strength is less than random noise.

Every "disturbance" in the atmosphere is always showing up in a signal as white (or pink) noise. So enough disturbance (tornados, sandstorms etc) could make it "harder". Though for well equipped people not impossible or difficult to overcome, you'll just use a larger dish or a higher wattage.

We can do better by transforming the entire atmosphere into an electrically charged plasma. Ion plasmas like this are very strong blockers of EM-waves, as experienced by the reentry of vehicles: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Communications_blackout

Now how to get such a highly ionised atmosphere?

Lighting, lots of lighting. Like near constant lightning strikes everywhere. The ionized atmosphere is kind of lethal to humans and most life though.

Then again there is always another way to transmit inforation: you could use sound waves (such as submarines do) or other accoustic waves through the solid material.. So then you're back to the drawing board to block that.

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Constant lightning from constant widespread storms would cause this. The storms don't necessary need to be affecting the surface directly. 90% of lightning on earth is air to air. This may also make wired communication useless by frequent lightning strikes on the cables.

Plus interference from the sun, especially if the planet doesn't have a magnetic field. Earth's magnetic field is caused by us having a partially melted iron core. Although this would increase the ionosphere, maybe making signal path decoding to complex to be done.

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I think this is reasonable-ish. We are uncertain about a lot of the fine details of lightning, but it can be caused by rain & snowstorms as well as active volcanoes. So it's possible that the planet combines all these features and has pervasive lightning & slushy volcanic-ash laden blizzards, which make their available radios extremely marginal past visual range, which might very rarely be more than 1km in these conditions.

Another reason could conceivably be if their world happens to be much denser, so it produces Earth-like gravity but is say the size of the Moon. It would have a thinner atmosphere, so presumably high altitude EM interactions w/ solar wind would happen closer to the surface. Also, it probably wouldn't generate a proper magnetic field, meaning much more interference, and if it was able to generate a magnetic field, it would probably mean a lot of radioactive decay & intense dynamics, which could contribute to volcanic activity & also generate EM interference directly.

One last possibility, it could be that there's a magnetar or something very far away, but still close enough to disrupt radio.

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