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Can radiation block all wireless communications?

My idea is that heavy meteorite storms are spreading radioactive dust around the atmosphere. I know that traces of radioactive elements can survive entering the atmosphere. And it seems some types of radiation can affect some radio signals. Though there are also 2 problems with this idea. First, can enough radioactive elements enter the atmosphere to have the effect, I am happy to allow new undiscovered types of radiation(or elements) if theoretically possible. Secondly would any type of radiation even theoretically, be able to disrupt all known radio and wireless data bandwidths?

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  • $\begingroup$ Thank you for the feedback. I will try and edit the tags. My question is how would the wireless communications be disrupted, my main idea is radiation, though I am open to other ideas. I may have added some unnecessary text and ideas, but I wanted to add as much context as possible so that people would not give invalid answers such as alien technology. I am not looking for anyone to write my story, I did not really mention plot or characters but I can see why you responded the way you did because some of my statements were a bit abstract, I will remove some of the less relevant stuff now. $\endgroup$ – Coder J May 7 at 19:09
  • $\begingroup$ Well done, Coder J, and thank you for editing the question! +1 $\endgroup$ – JBH May 7 at 20:35
  • $\begingroup$ You ARE aware that wireless communications are radiation, aren't you? The correct type of radiation - large amounts of radio noise in the correct frequency bands - could disrupt radio communications (see "jamming"). Alpha, beta, & gamma radiation, or neutrons, will have little or no effect. (Though they could disrupt devices like cell phones, by e.g. flipping bits in memory so that the operating systems crash.) $\endgroup$ – jamesqf May 8 at 5:24
  • $\begingroup$ "traces of radioactive elements can survive entering the atmosphere", not sure what you mean by "traces ... survive", but radioactive elements are atoms with unstable nucleus. All the radioactive nucleus will be basically unaffected by entering the atmosphere, so all radioactive material that enters the atmosphere will survive (remain radioactive in the atmosphere and after falling to the ground), radioactive decay is completely unaffected by such low energy events. $\endgroup$ – hyde May 8 at 8:21
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    $\begingroup$ @jamesqf Fair 'nuf. Or to say the same another way, if atmosphere is ionized so much it blocks all useful radio communications, then also the radios themselves, not to mention people, will be quite dead. $\endgroup$ – hyde May 8 at 18:58
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Since you revised your question, let me try to address the radiation issue in more depth: No, you can't block all wireless communications with radiation. EM interference is what happens when you overlap a communications frequency with the same frequency but different pattern. To jam a signal, you need to match the frequency with a higher energy interference. To block a range of frequencies you need to send an interference wave for each frequency in the range at small enough of increments to disallow a tolerance for transmitting a signal in the inbetween jamming patterns. This means that wide-spectrum jamming requires WAY more power than any individual signal you are trying to jam. Now you need to consider that there are both AM and FM signals meaning that even if you broad spectrum the FM bands, AM might still be immune because you'd have to match their amplitudes instead of their frequencies meaning you need a whole second spectrum of jamming signals. Then you need to consider wire-communications still actually cover most of the developed world; so, to having a meaningful effect, you need to jam them too. To jam those you'd need to bombard them with a sustained EM radiation strong enough to physically push the electrons out of the copper wiring. If this is a natural event, this kind of full spectrum EM radiation won't stop at low energy waves. You'll probably have microwaves, IR waves, gamma rays, etc. When you add all of these forces up, you are looking at something that is so energetic that you'll basically microwave all life out of existence pretty darn quickly.

Imagine instead the following scenario for a dystopian communications blackout:

Communications companies continue to merge until there is just one global communications company. Let's call them MegaComm. There are a few companies near the end that refuse to sell, so MegaComm just buys up the suppliers that these communication companies rely on forcing them out of business anyway. People start protesting this monopoly, but since they control all communications, these people are censored and politicians are bombarded by enough lobbyists and campaign funding that nothing happens to stop them. Guided by maximizing profits, this company makes 3 very logical business choices after securing their monopoly status.

  • The first is to stop worrying about quality and just focus on hiring the cheapest people they can find to run their infrastructure. Because they have monopoly power, they don't have to worry about making people happy, just as long as they sort-of fulfill their contractual requirements.

  • The second is to utilize all those vendors they purchased to be able to exclusively supply all their own networking hardware. Within a decade, every industrial, residential, and commercial network is running off of a unified chip-set designed by MegaComm to eliminate all those pesky compatibility issues the old internet used to run into. This makes maintaining their network way easier and cheaper. Also makes pushing firmware updates super easy so you don't have to worry about hackers messing with your unstandardized data points that someone forgot to patch.

  • The third is to run everything they do off of a highly distributed and redundant cloud platform backed by blockchain protection. Investors love all the fancy buzzwords and agree this is the way to go.

Now, MegaComm's board of directors are feeling awfully proud of themselves. They are wealthy beyond measure, everything is going great... but then, someone somewhere half way down the chain of command decides to fire a bunch of over priced senior engineers, in favor of a new office located in Sri Lanka that will save the company millions of dollars a year! Another great business choice I must say.

These new employees don't know anything about cyber security; so, a few months latter, a hacker is poking around in MegaComm's network and finds a vulnerability in their update service. Now this hacker being fed up with MegaComm's bad customer service decides to teach them a lesson by pushing an overclock virus through the update service. With-in an hour, routers modems, cell towers, and even satellites all around the world begin to catch fire and burn up.

MegaComm scrambles to restore their last firmware update so they can try to push a fix, but with communications down and the virus already installed on nearly every piece of network technology in the world, their distributed cloud platform has torn all of their data into 1000s of little pieces and spread it all over the world with no way of putting the pieces back together. As data-hubs go down, people are cut off with no way of knowing their stuff is about to overheat so everyone just sits around desperately trying to call MegaComm to find out why their internet is down while all there stuff continues to burn out.

A few hours later, ever piece of telecommunications hardware is a brick, and no one knows how to put it back together. The hacker scratches his head in disbelief at MegaComm's incompetence.

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  • $\begingroup$ I have been told to edit my question and limit the scope of it to something specific, so I kept it around the radiation question. You are probably right, for the radiation to be strong enough to disrupt all radio waves it would probably have too many effects on health and other materials and change my world in ways I don't want. The more I think about it, radiation seems not the way to go. Your idea about MegaComm sounds plausible and has given me a lot to think about. Thank you. $\endgroup$ – Coder J May 7 at 19:55
  • $\begingroup$ @CoderJ, what Nosajimiki has provided (among other things, a good answer!) is what we call a Frame Challenge. A challenge to your question is as valuable as a supportive answer as it points out issues you may not have considered and opportunities you can take advantage of. $\endgroup$ – JBH May 7 at 20:37
  • $\begingroup$ Thanks for the update. You talk about EM jamming in context of radiation, maybe because that was the scope of my original question. But can anything else jam radio signals like some sort of EM field? Someone else said constant atmospheric electrical activity could, implying it was not radiation. $\endgroup$ – Coder J May 7 at 21:43
  • $\begingroup$ Radiation just implies the emissions of radioactive decay (alpha, beta, and gamma radiation). Most communication is done via less harmful long-wave EM waves. EM waves include in order of long to short wavelengths: Radio Waves, Microwaves, Infrared waves, visible light waves, Ultraviolet-waves, X-ray waves, & Gamma waves. They are all caused by electromagnetic (EM) activity, but most communication happens in the Radio or Microwave spectrum. Alpha and Beta radiation are particle emissions which are different all together. $\endgroup$ – Nosajimiki May 7 at 21:55
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    $\begingroup$ So what you're saying is that if you suitably irradiate the person trying to send the communication they won't be able to do so? $\endgroup$ – Separatrix May 8 at 9:23
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Knocking out all satellites would do some serious damage, destroying navigation and much communications.

Underground/international fiber optics are hardly an easy target: they're considered critical infrastructure and are generally both protected and redundant; in vulnerable spots they are often also actively guarded. Their main point of vulnerability is where they pass under the ocean and can be attacked by trawlers.

LONG metal (copper) communication wires are far more vulnerable to EMP damage than shorter ones, at least if the EMP itself is large. They can and have been damaged by solar flares, though nowadays are rather better protected from this.

Radiation won't do much significant to disrupt wireless comms, but what would is constant electrical activity in the atmosphere. This would also give you your EMPs. A whole lot of charged dust in the atmosphere would do this, and the charge could come from radioactivity maybe? Wherever it comes from, you want charged particles causing lots of lightning.

Some serious EMPs to damage unprotected wired electronics would go some way to trashing things: I'm somewhat skeptical if even nuclear EMPs could do significant damage to non-wired electronics like cellphones. You'd have to have power density equivalent to a lightning strike every few square meters, applied over the entire planet to destroy enough stuff I think - but since you want social collapse without destroying most electronics, that would work.

So, you will destroy communication, and harm long-distance travel, but you will also hit power generation and manufacture: I would argue these are also needed for decent societal collapse, or the broken systems can just be repaired, and damaged areas of the network would be routed around.

Without power, comms, manufacture, or travel, you stand a chance of believable social collapse; food will stop getting delivered, cash machines and bank systems will stop working, news and instructions will not get distributed, so localized riots will break out, escalating as distant fires become visible through the lightning storm.

Police and the military will try to keep order, but without good comms, they will be hampered, and if they act heavy-handed will likely just inflame the population into rebelling harder.

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  • $\begingroup$ Thank you, I appreciate all the ideas. I had to edit my post to a more simplified question but your comment was very useful. I may indeed end up using an atmospheric electrical charge instead. $\endgroup$ – Coder J May 7 at 19:47
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TL;DR: no. "all wireless communications" is a very, very broad category, and to disrupt all of them might well involve rendering the environment so hostile that there might not be any people around to communicate.

So.

Radiation, as provided by radioactive decay, is not a very good way of disrupting communications. A decent amount of radiation, enough to be hazardous to living things, can disrupt or permanently damage semiconductors, but you could put the clever bits of a radio in a shielded environment and have your antenna on the end of a cable and you'd probably be good to go.

You can disrupt lower-frequency radio signals (like, under 30MHz) by disrupting the ionosphere, and you can do that with various kinds of astronomical upset in the sun. It'll need to be serious and ongoing, as shortwave radios can be built very simply and cheaply that can communicate around the world, albeit with low bandwidth compared to what we're used to these days.

After that though, things start getting tricky. VHF radio is line-of-sight, but you can bounce it off things like planes, satellites or even the moon if you really wanted to. Your hypothetical meteor showers? Might make long distance VHF communication easier!

UHF and microwave transmissions can be scattered off the troposphere allowing point-to-point communication across fairly substantial distances... this was how a lot of long distance communication to inconvenient places was done back before satellite communications became cheap and easy.

You don't even have to use radio if you don't want to... free space optical networking is a thing, and whilst it is only line-of-sight, there's plenty of scope for the tech to scale up nicely. Optical networking isn't going to be vulnerable to electrical interference in the atmosphere.


So what can you do? Well, if you're happy for the disruption to be relatively short, you could arrange for a nuclear war. Lots of high-altitude EMP will be extremely bad for modern communications infrastructure, and strikes at certain places and cities will seriously disrupt wired communication too.

Nukes aren't the only way to do that, but they are pretty good at it. Something more along the lines of a natural disaster would be another Carrington Event which would take out satellites and earthbound power grids though optic fibres and various kinds of electrical infrastructure would be basically unaffected.

A serious meteorite shower would effectively disrupt communications by smashing everything up. As a natural disaster counterpart to a Carrington event, you might be able to handwave the two as having the same origin.

If you want the disruption to be widespread, long-lasting and affect multiple technologies you're basically going to need some kind of technology to do it for you. Souls in the Great Machine was a book which had a post-apocalyptic society without electricity or radio as a result of orbital microwave weapon platforms which would smite any detected EM sources on the earth's surface. There are plenty of other ideas that could have the same effect, and be of human or alien origin as you prefer. That's probably the best direction to look in.

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  • $\begingroup$ Thanks for the answer. I guess I will not use radiation after all. Something related to an EMP could work, I will have to think about how I can integrate it into my setting. I will definitely read about the Carrington event and Souls In The Great Machine. Sounds like they will be very useful to me. $\endgroup$ – Coder J May 7 at 21:20
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It wouldn't be so much that they would "block" transmissions, as introduce so much additional background noise across a wide range of RF bands as to make long distance radio communication with conventional equipment or sustainable signal strengths impractical.

Whether that's something that could realistically occur without also coming along with an amount of ionising radiation rapidly lethal to all life on Earth is another matter. There aren't that many radioactive materials that directly emit RF (really, that's more in the realm of the fluorescent), anything that they might cause would be more from the emission of higher energy waves and particles that would then be absorbed by other matter that re-emitted some of that as lower-energy photons. Though at least some of those original emissions would still be picked up by radio equipment and that alone might interfere with a wide range of frequencies, and simply interfering with the reception side is of course enough to cause disruption.

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Radio wave and Wireless (wifi) are both a type of low frequency Electro Magnetic Radiation. Wireless, Radio, Microwaves, sun light and all light even glowing plutonium are giving off photons. Sometimes this is the consequence of the atomic structure being unstable as in the case of plutonium or it can be a process of using EMF form a magnatron (the device that makes microwaves in your kitchen microwave, for example) to excite the energy level of electrons to relies microwave photons. An easy at home demonstration is try having in a cell phone conversation in-front of your microwave while it is running. The signal coming from the cell towers should be interrupted by the photons coming off the microwave, resulting in poor resection.

EM spectrum with examples

To answer you question, that could theoretically work. Maybe have a type of material that emits photos that are of the same weave length as cell towers. Without cell towers, you would be down cell (Internet) assisted GPS; most modern telecommunications; and the social result of people not being able to text, facebook, and twitter would create a very panicked situation. Very offer meteors hit the surface of the earth and don't brake up entirely; maybe as delivery mechanism. The amount of area that would be effected by this jamming radiation would not be very great. Just like the effects of a microwave on a cellphone call, you would have to blanket the entire planet in this material to disable all telecommunications. Mind you, just like you can have bad cell reception or not get wifi in the further rooms of your house, since this material would be giving off photons competing with the photons of wifi and cell towers, the material could be shielded against just like microwaves and cell phones can be shielded for.

  1. "First, can enough radioactive elements enter the atmosphere to have the effect, I am happy to allow new undiscovered types of radiation(or elements) if theoretically possible."
  2. "Secondly would any type of radiation even theoretically, be able to disrupt all known radio and wireless data bandwidths?"
    • Yes, if you have a situation where like with cell towers and wifi the EM is used as a carrier wave for digital information you can block the EM by generating radiation that will compete with the radiation carrier wave.
    • It works sort of like watering down juice: after it's watered down, the part of the mixture that is juice is less then that which is pure water, so not enough of the juice gets to the, in this case cell phone, for you to get the Internet over wifi or broadband; where juice is the carrier wave.
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