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I am looking for a plausible explanation as to why approximately every few decades something happens that destroys surface electronics and then continues for several years. Ideally it would be unpredictable.

I've looked at handwavium https://worldbuilding.stackexchange.com/a/217778/94879. I think this would not work for me as I want something irregular and random, whereas the handwavium suggestion would be regular and predictable.

I've also read about the Carrington Event, and I could do something like that however, I think these would not be strong enough to wipe out all electronics.

What could be unpredictable like geomagnetic storms, but powerful enough to destroy electronics but not living things?

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  • $\begingroup$ Hi @Goodies, the difference is that I would want irregular EMP/Corrington Events sufficient to knock out electronics. My understanding of the one I listed is they would be very regular and thus predictable. $\endgroup$ Mar 12, 2022 at 1:20
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    $\begingroup$ I retracted my close vore already.. This is not a duplicate, it seems to be the general case of the previous topic.. you need it to be irregular ? Or could it be semi-irregular ? Keep in mind you're talking planet scale. Planets have orbits, planetary orbits cause these things (imho) and so it will be regular phenomenon. You['ve put a science-fiction tag.. could there be aliens involved in this ? Somehow they are kept back in development by aliens ? an artificial cause.. $\endgroup$
    – Goodies
    Mar 12, 2022 at 1:22
  • $\begingroup$ I'm thinking about as (ir)regular, in terms of predictability, as the Cascadian Subduction Zone earthquake. But unlike an earthquake would be longer lasting, perhaps going on for decades. As to the alien question, none play a part in this story, so I didn't want to rely on that. Tbh, I don't understand the handwavium answer well enough to know if I could tweak it to my ends. So if it wouldn't sufficiently explain random or irregular events, what would? I guess that's my question. $\endgroup$ Mar 12, 2022 at 1:30
  • $\begingroup$ Does it have to be a natural event? Does the cause need to remain a mystery? For instance, an EMP is an obvious cause of such problems, but it is neither natural nor undetectable. Unusual nuclear activity on a volcanic moon would be natural, but again, easy to diagnose. $\endgroup$ Mar 12, 2022 at 1:36
  • $\begingroup$ Hi Ray. It does not have to remain a mystery, just has to be unavoidable and a very long lasting phenomena. Those were the main reasons I was leaning towards something natural. It doesn't need to be a mystery. If it is a mystery I would want some way to allow readers to suspend belief while not being the main focus of the story. I'm mostly using it as a device to force surface technology to be pre-industrial. $\endgroup$ Mar 12, 2022 at 1:44

9 Answers 9

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two natural, one artificial..

Solar EM flares

Your sun has quite powerful EM hickups. It is about to go supernova. It could be 60 years, or 60.000 years, they can't be accurately predicted. But there's a supernova coming soon, so any settling scenario would be short.

Geomagnetism

Your planet has tectonic activity and a layer of magnetic substrate in its crust. When an earthquake occurs, induction currents will cause EM pulses and your radio gets fried.

Unintended side effect of propulsion system experiments

Your settlers are hobbying with new spacecraft technology. They don't mind rules and regulations, so they messed up their Alcubierre prototype. It causes EMP's now, these seem to bounce around in space time, everywhere around the planet and on various points in time. Every EMP event is an echo of a previous instance, causing damage in electronic equipment. The echo of the event will slowly fade out in space time, eventually, but that will take 10000 years.

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Surprise brine

I was born in the city with the 2nd saltiest air on Earth (just learned it is actually the 1st). Electronics, appliances and even cars last shorter there because of the immoral amount of sodium chloride in water vapor. Stuff simply corrodes as if it took a dip in the sea for a fraction of a second everyday. By the way humidity is usually 50%+ throughout the year. Air conditioning in server rooms is not meant to cool down computers, but rather to keep air dry so it is salt free.

In your world, some unexplained phenomena may randomly fill the air with salty vapour too. Maybe volcanic eruptions. This will harm electronics for a while, and then things get back to normal for years or decades. The fun part is never knowing when the next eruption will occur.

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  • $\begingroup$ Very interesting. I hadn't thought of that angle. $\endgroup$ Mar 12, 2022 at 7:28
  • $\begingroup$ What city is this? I’d be interested to read up more about this! $\endgroup$ Mar 14, 2022 at 10:50
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    $\begingroup$ @PeterLeFanuLumsdaine Fortaleza, a city in Brazil. The sea is not as salty ad the Dead Sea or the Red Sea, but due to strong and constant winds the air over the city is the saltiest on the planet. $\endgroup$ Mar 14, 2022 at 10:52
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A Carrington Event would definitely impact the power lines and likely cause widespread power outages, and perhaps even failure of the US grid power for a substantial period of time. In addition to the power outage and other impacts on infrastructure, there would be voltage transients that could be hard to handle. A lot of well designed electronics have some type of protection, but not all. In some cases, electrostatic discharge would also cause device failures. Such an event would impact satellites, perhaps knocking them some out, but maybe not as obvious is that the ionosphere will be disturbed and radio communications will be impacted. Scintillations in the ionosphere will make GPS less precise. Airlines that fly over the poles actually get space weather reports to help better understand radio and navigation problems caused by space weather. So something like a Carrington event would cause problems, but probably wipe out everything.

Radiation on the other hand, assuming it is not too detrimental to your people, plants etc. Is something that can cause electronics reliability problems.

A lot of modern electronics are based on field effect transistors or CMOS device, and they are essentially electrostatic devices where a small voltage on the "gate" will allow the current to flow from the "source" to the "drain". If there is some extra charge somewhere near the gate, the amount of voltage to control the device changes.

So when a particle goes though the semiconductor it knocks electrons off the atoms leaving an ionization trail. These extra electrons if near the gate can cause the device to fail. Other things can happen too like blowing a hole in the gate, or creating defects by knocking atoms around etc. There are a bunch of people who work on radiation hardened electronics to try to get around these types of problems.

A lot of the failures in electronics from radiation are from cosmic rays, or from particles from the sun. The ones from cosmic rays are interesting since they can come from beyond the solar system, and there are cosmic ray showers of energetic particles when a cosmic ray hits the atmosphere.

So on the surface of the planet, I suppose you could have a couple of choices. Some galactic source pulses every decade or so and zaps your electronics. Or perhaps there is flare where in addition to the geomagnetic induction of voltage on the wires, there is enough radiation that makes it through the protective aspects of the earths magnetic field. Or perhaps you could hand wave and have the magnetic field have a glitch or flip directions and the radiation zaps the electronics. Maybe the people, plants and animals have evolved to have to had some tolerance for the radiation, or along with your electronics having problems, there is an increased risk for cancer. For electronics, especially computation pretty much every thing has to work perfectly, for people and animals, people get x-rays, sunburns, or live at high altitudes, smoke etc. so in someways are more tolerant of radiation.

Instead of Silicon and other types of semiconductor transistors, you can have vacuum tubes, or microfluidic devices that are more tolerant of radiation. But building a computer, or some other types of electronic devices would be a lot harder, and often not very small.

Edited to add link to NASA Article on the Carrington Event of 1859, the massive solar storm that allowed people to see Aurora Borealis as far south as the Caribbean and allowed telegraph operators in Boston to operate the systems with the batteries unplugged. (It also caused fires at numerous telegraph stations. It is expected that such an event would cause major disruptions if it occurred today.

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  • $\begingroup$ You should either explain what a Carrington event is, or provide a link for it, so people who know less about solar flares understand you are talking about solar flares. I'd upvote with that. Otherwise a solid answer. $\endgroup$
    – DWKraus
    Mar 12, 2022 at 2:02
  • $\begingroup$ Good idea, edited to add a link and a little explanation. $\endgroup$
    – UVphoton
    Mar 12, 2022 at 2:38
  • $\begingroup$ Thank you. I was hoping that it wouldn't be harmful to plants and animals, but I suppose some evolution or genetic engineering might help with that. It also doesn't have to be constant, so maybe a blast that fries electronics. I could also give the planet a slightly larger axial tilt and say the radiation + CME induced voltage happens in the "summer" of this planet and at those times people wear more protective clothing. That way it is sufficient to fry surface electronics but perhaps be less harmful to people. $\endgroup$ Mar 12, 2022 at 7:27
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Monoculture and anti-material bacteria.

The settlers made sure that their gadgetry uses interchangeable standard parts. Their plans for industrial development included either one factory, or two identical ones. They produce something like an Arduino that ends up controlling industrial power plants, cars, consumer electronics, etc.

Then a local microorganism mutates to eat the material of the standard circuit board. So all microcontrollers die, including those running the microchip fabs.

The village blacksmiths will be able to draw wire and wind generators and electric motors. Perhaps someone manages to produce lightbulbs without the use of microchips. But the electronics must be re-invented from scratch. This re-invention is problematic because of low population numbers. It takes many millions of people if a society is to have the surplus for something like the Bell Labs.

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  • $\begingroup$ Interesting. Sort of twist on "gray goo" or "green goo" but rather than consuming everything, it just consumes some of the materials for circuitboards. $\endgroup$ Mar 12, 2022 at 7:16
  • $\begingroup$ This reminds me of stories about 'crazy ants' at the southern US border, they kept eating PCB's (or was it cable insulation?...something you wouldn't expect eaten). $\endgroup$
    – user86462
    Mar 12, 2022 at 20:24
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  1. Total, rapid collapse or inversion of the planet's magnetic field. Earth's magnetic field inverts over long periods of time and IIRC varies in strength. On your planet, it loses its strength suddenly, exposing electronics to solar radiation for an indefinite period of time. As I understand it, that's totally plausible for many planets with magnetic fields generated by liquid metal layers. There is even some speculation about how stable Earth's is.

  2. Phase changes of magnetic core materials: Iron loses most of its magnetism above the Curie temperature. If you wanted to go for something less realistic but more fun, you could have a planet where the whole planet is made of iron oxide or some compound that is a far better magnet when solid than melted, and the temperature beneath the surface is erratic as hell, resulting in underground magnets the size of mountains forming and melting as underground temperatures vary. Make it out of the same material as neodymium magnets for more fun. Whether the electronics get fried by solar storms that are no longer impeded by a geomagnetic field, or mountain sized neodymium magnets appearing next door is up to you.

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Metal Cicadas

enter image description here

The metal cicadas spend most of their lives underground. Every few years they respond to changes in the planets magnetic field and metamorphose into adults.

They climb to the surface and are drawn to electromagnetically active areas. They clog powerlines, generators, and antennaes. This process continues for a few years, until all the surface electronics are destroyed and the next generation of cicadas stays underground.

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Luddites

luddites

https://www.cbsnews.com/news/almanac-the-luddites/

The Luddites were mill workers who in 1811 began a campaign to smash mill machinery. It evolved into an antimachinery movement, characterized by breaking said machines. The term "Luddites" today refers to persons who fear and hate technological innovation, and are prone to destroy such innovations.

On your world there exists this movement. Perhaps once a generation these folks go on an antitechnology rampage.

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  • $\begingroup$ Thanks for the suggestion. I may have elements of that in places, however I'm looking for something stronger that would fundamentally shape society. $\endgroup$ Mar 12, 2022 at 22:10
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    $\begingroup$ While not ideal this does have one advantage over all the environmental ones, anything environmental people will design/build against after the first couple of events. Priests or luddites periodically destroying a lot of tech for social reasons can't be easily designed around. $\endgroup$
    – Murphy
    Mar 14, 2022 at 13:57
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Comet tails

Every few decades a comets procession passes close to the planet, between the planet and its star. The tails of all the comets wrap the planet, they are a mix of dust and gases. The atmosphere of the planet is windy and humid, colliding with the dust and the condensed vapour coming from the comets a lot of particles get a static charge. A storm of lightnings discharges on the planet surface.

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  • The "Stars align" to produce an electromagnetic effect, planets in the system with periodic orbits that only every so often line up well enough to channel Solar wind, or magnetic interference sent from a distant gamma ray enough to kill electronics but not living being. Not all planets are involved each time, so the unpredictability would come from different numbers of orbits lining up at different times.
  • An old weapon system from ancient civilizations is still partially operational, charging it's energy banks and when filled, expelling a system wide EMP, over time this energy bank is taking longer and longer to charge, or the trigger mechanism is disfunctional.
  • Experimentation and war driven civilizations may periodically send each other and themselves back to the stone-age. By then, most records are kept digitally, paper and other documents not longer the norm, causing a tech revert to come also with a loss of documentation and history when technology no longer works.
  • Overseer visit, be it known or unknown to the story's citizens, Powerful cosmic custodials sees that the planet is not ready for the powers it is beginning to wield, and decide for the better of the planet (rather than have a mass extinction) to revert technology via Electromagnetic wave to essentially give the planet another chance.
  • Geological episode, volcanoes can often be accompanied by lightning, on a larger scale, the eruption of a tightly confined volcano with enough charged material could produce an EMP wave of sorts.
  • Religious revolt. Perhaps a smaller accident occurred, or paranoia is generated as a means to an end, that being the destruction of all technology. There may be hangers on, but over time the law is changed to remove tech where found until the original issue is forgotten and years later a new tech revolution begins before another cause destroys it.
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