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Suppose there's an island in the East Pacific, west of San Francisco and south of Alaska (see Google Maps; there's nothing but ocean there). This island needs to be at least 4x the size of Manhattan, preferably larger. It's home to a diverse and loosely-governed society that doesn't care to communicate with the outside world. It's not owned by or connected with any external government. It's self-sufficient (no substantial exports or imports). And its government has a strong interest in keeping the existence of the island secret. That is, perhaps select individuals outside of the island can know about it, but if it were to show up on satellite imagery, a Rand McNally map, Wikipedia, etc. that would cause irreparable damage. Any ships, more than the occasional lone adventurer blown off course, would also be unacceptably inconvenient to deal with.

This is a non-magical world, so a Hogwarts Hidey Spell won't work here. However, the island's access to technology is quite good; perhaps on par with present-day American military/government research. The population of the island includes a number of millionaires and scientists who have disavowed the outside world and aren't interested in going back.

Assuming that the island's government has access to impressive wealth and a few privileged connections (as few as possible, of course), how could it keep the rest of the world in the dark?

EDIT: This question has been tagged as a possible duplicate. There are some similarities, but the accepted answer to that one was "hide in plain sight, under the guise of a resort/theme park". That's great for hiding an evil lair, but not nearly as good for hiding a civilization that loves its privacy.

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    $\begingroup$ Possible duplicate of How can I hide my island? $\endgroup$ – sphennings May 24 '17 at 15:15
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    $\begingroup$ The real question is : how would they have access to such impressive wealth, connections and technology with such a strict isolationnist policy ? $\endgroup$ – Keelhaul May 24 '17 at 15:16
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    $\begingroup$ I think you just found a new possible location for Atlantis... research team departing in three... two... one... $\endgroup$ – a CVn May 24 '17 at 15:29
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    $\begingroup$ @MichaelKjörling Yes. If it's not unreasonable for DARPA, it's not unreasonable for this island. (Please stress to your research team that this question is, ahem, hypothetical.) $\endgroup$ – Isaac Lyman May 24 '17 at 15:31
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    $\begingroup$ A good hypothesis is how every well-received theory begins... $\endgroup$ – a CVn May 24 '17 at 15:38
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It's going to be tough.

Satellite Surveillance / ISS Live Feeds

You're not going to be able to hide from satellite surveillance. If your dwellers lived underground and had no significant above-ground footprint (or put grass and rocks on all of your rooftops and didn't have roads), and you keep your heat emissions very low and distributed evenly[1], maybe you could make your island look uninhabited during the day. At night, you wouldn't be able to have streetlights. You'd probably want some combination of self-driving cars or night vision for people that need to move around, and/or a very good subway system.

There's a much simpler option, though: Because it seems you're mostly trying to hide your existence from the general world public, and "a few select individuals" can know, my best suggestion is to forge agreements with first world nations with surveillance capabilities in exchange for keeping your existence classified so only top levels of world governments are aware. Give the conspiracy theorists something to really whine about.

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  1. Heat is just another form of detectable radiation, and anything that uses power (including humans—I burn over 2000 kcal/day) generates heat correspondingly. You either have to distribute that heat over a large area so the effect is small and hopefully goes unnoticed, or you have to "export" your heat far offshore and hope that nobody cares enough to send a submarine and go looking for the other end of the warm seawater pipe... :-) Another reason why my vote goes to making deals with other world powers.

Self-sufficiency v. Visibility

On a hidden Manhattan-sized island, you are likely going to need some imports/exports. You aren't going to be able to have significant above ground crops of livestock, after all. Maybe a few wild fruits and vegetables or indoor hydroponics, but how far that goes very much depends on your population.

On a Manhattan-sized island, other natural resources will be slim, so you'll need to import things like precious metals required to build electronics, and buying foreign-made equipment might be a necessity for certain things if you don't have the real-estate to house factories for every widget you need (and I strongly suspect you won't.)

Being self-sufficient is hard. Being self-sufficient and high-tech on a small island will be extremely hard.

Edit: The point here is that you'll probably need to import something, and to do that without giving away your existence will be tricky. Even if you use your own ship/aircraft, you'll need coordination with foreign customs and border officials when entering others' borders. That, or maybe arrangements with some pirates who don't ask a lot of questions, who you can meet at random predetermined coordinates every week or so, to trade cargo mid-ocean.

Radio Transmissions

As with light pollution and heat above ambient being visible from space, any radio frequency transmissions you use can be picked up as well, so I'd advise going hard-wired as much as possible, which may well make mobile phone use tantamount to high treason in your country. Note that encryption doesn't help you because the mere presence of such transmissions gives away your location.

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  • $\begingroup$ Self sufficiency is outside the scope of the question. OP only asked about how to hide the island, not how to operate it. $\endgroup$ – Isaac Kotlicky May 24 '17 at 23:09
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    $\begingroup$ And signals can be hidden by making it indistinguishable from noise; the Aegis system does something like that. Conveniently, encryption also tends to make signal look like noise. $\endgroup$ – Harper May 24 '17 at 23:40
  • $\begingroup$ @IsaacKotlicky I only addressed Self-Sufficiency insofar as it affects visibility—imports require ships/aircraft which requires some coordination with other nations. I didn't fully complete the thought in my answer, though, so I'll do that now. Thanks! $\endgroup$ – type_outcast May 25 '17 at 0:14
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    $\begingroup$ @Harper With encryption, observers are still going to see an unnatural amplitude spike in a narrow band (say 2.4GHz, or whatever becomes popular on this island), and that's why encryption only scrambles the transmission, not the fact that there is a transmission, and thus, an island. (Unless the entire island's transmission power is very close to the noise floor, which probably wouldn't be the case mid-ocean.) Do you have a link for the Aegis thing? I couldn't see anything in the first few results about transmission hiding, only missile detection. Sounds cool, though! Maybe I can work it in. $\endgroup$ – type_outcast May 25 '17 at 0:25
  • $\begingroup$ For those reasons you can't have a carrier. Think of Hedy Lamarr's "frequency hopping" scheme which evolved into CDMA, but actually more dynamic than that. Instead of hopping carriers, you transmit raw noise without a carrier. In Aegis' case you listen for that same noise to echo back. In a radio's case the noise is actually encryption product; the receiver uses heavy DSP to find structure in the noise. The key is you must know what you're looking for; the enemy doesn't. Interestingly, it handles overlapping signals reasonably well. $\endgroup$ – Harper May 25 '17 at 14:41
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Given the area where you want your island was center stage for the pacific portion of the second world war, the chance of any existing landmass going unnoticed during the first half of last century is less than zero.

So either you need to create a new island after 1945 and follow the cloaking advice offered in the other answers, or...

you could use a real and unoccupied island in that same neighborhood, leaving you with the less challenging task of keeping visitors away. This island of Attu in the northern pacific has a 2010 census population of zero. If you could arrange for a mythical chemical or nuclear spill to scare away the tourists, you would have 344 square miles of vacant land on which to grow your secret civilization in complete privacy.

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So this island must be:

  1. Invisible to imaging satellites.
  2. Cannot be visited by boat.
  3. Cannot be picked up as a landmass on radar; as it would then be detectable by vessels at a distance.
  4. Cannot have detectable/locatable emissions, be it light, heat, or even radio waves.

That's a bit of a tall order, but not an impossible one.

Interestingly enough, 3 and 4 might be the easiest to accomplish with current technology. Vantablack is a metamaterial (vanta stands for Vertically Aligned Nano Tube Array) that is able to absorb over 99% of the visible light spectrum. Objects coated with vantablack appear basically like a featureless black blob, sort of like Hotblack Desiato's stuntship. A properly tuned vanta array can similarly be used to absorb different parts of the EM spectrum. Mounted facing toward the city, this would absorb internal emissions. Facing outward, it would be tuned to absorb incoming radar and lidar.

Side point: Potentially, the VANTA shielding could be harnessed for electrical generation through either a heat exchanger system or tuned band-gap generators (like solar panels).

To prevent being visited by boats, I propose that the easiest solution would be a system of artificially generated hazards including reefs, waves, and storms. Any single one by itself would be "too obvious" or navigable, but an interacting system of underwater terrain and sporadic storms would dissuade people from trying to cross an area this far from any shipping lanes. Adding some magnetic field anomalies would mess with compasses and GPS connections - people could be sailing right around it without realizing they've deviated from their course.

But this would leave a conspicuous blank on a lot of maps, and doesn't solve the 1st point - satellite visibility, or visibility in general from space, since something as large as Manhattan is photographable from the ISS, and we're talking about something 4 times that big!

Enter the IMOD or Interferometric Modulator Display (trademarked as mirasol). Rather than being backlit, mirasol displays work by reflecting ambient light, meaning they look brighter in direct sun than in shade. The pixels operate by creating a gap between the clear surface and the reflective substrate of the subpixel. This gap causes destructive interference to most wavelengths of light, while the wavelength matching the gap is reflected, making the subpixel appear a specific color. For relatively low refresh images (like ebooks or smart watches), this is a very energy efficient display. Affixing large pixel tiles above the buildings would enable you to generate an adaptive wave camoflauge that would be hard to detect at satellite resolutions.

The last bit of the problem is protecting the secret. Such an advanced society with near-future tech would pose a credible existential threat to smaller nations and could prove an ally to larger ones. Basically, you would have to forge connections with high-level individuals in the NSA, NRO, NGA, and their cognates in large spacefaring nations to keep them from intruding. In all likelihood this would be via intelligence exchange, slightly outdated tech, and the knowledge that if your secret society wanted to they could be a significant threat.

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  • $\begingroup$ Wouldn't the use of vantablack make it very difficult for the inhabitants to see the island's structures? Your eyes need the differences in shade in order to step around obsticles, and to know when to stop proceeding to a cliff or a wall. I'm also not sure what it would do with the human psyche if surrounded with all that total blackness all the time. $\endgroup$ – M. le Rutte May 24 '17 at 17:51
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    $\begingroup$ Vantablack doesn’t work for radar. $\endgroup$ – JDługosz May 24 '17 at 20:12
  • $\begingroup$ You can't solve your radar problem through either absorption or reflection. The surface of the ocean is pretty much continuously monitored by satellite-based radar for various reasons (weather forecasting, tsunami detection, geodesy, etc.), and this monitoring tracks a wide range of parameters from average wave size to height -- to sub-millimeter precision. You'd need to perfectly match your radar return to that of the surrounding ocean, which is well beyond the ability of any current or near-future stealth system. $\endgroup$ – Mark May 24 '17 at 22:44
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    $\begingroup$ @M.leRutte the outside perimeter would be what gets coated, not everything on the interior. $\endgroup$ – Isaac Kotlicky May 24 '17 at 22:45
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    $\begingroup$ @JDługosz of course it doesn't. It's attuned to visible light. But you can adjust the parameters of the meta material to reflect particular wavelengths. I was using it as an example of how the process works: "a properly tuned vanta array." $\endgroup$ – Isaac Kotlicky May 24 '17 at 22:47
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Isaac’s answer itemizes different distinct problems, and doesn’t answer all of them. I have a suggestion on how to hide from satellite imagery.

Suppose that perfect invisibility or perfect camouflage is not available — you can’t make the spot look like empty ocean without attracting more attention to the anomaly, eventually.

So use meta-camouflage, where it looks redacted already by someone. The joke about hiding a barn by painting it green with “© Google Earth” written on the roof can be done in a more serious manner. Make it look like bad pixels, or a cloud, or the pattern used to hide things that the imaging company uses. If it could be active material, then it could update to best suit each overflight in the best way for that equipment and company, or at least not be an unchanging cloud.

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  • $\begingroup$ Chanute, Kansas did exactly that, painting Google Earth iconography on their streets. googlemac.blogspot.com/2006/12/why-chanute.html $\endgroup$ – Harper May 24 '17 at 23:44
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    $\begingroup$ That blog post doesn’t say anything about painting the streets. $\endgroup$ – JDługosz May 25 '17 at 4:03
  • $\begingroup$ What happened when you looked at the town on Google Earth? $\endgroup$ – Harper May 25 '17 at 6:13
  • $\begingroup$ I'm not using a Mac and there were no Earth links in the post that I noticed. Looking it up by name, now, I don't see anything special. (The URL I got from the app doesn’t work in Chrome on the tablet. I guess the web version only works on desktops) $\endgroup$ – JDługosz May 25 '17 at 6:27
  • $\begingroup$ Weird. It's a small town with an obvious center, with only 3-4 intersections that could possibly be the "center of town". One of them has a huge Google Earth icon painted in it. Or had... maybe it didn't age well. Speaking of odd computer behavior SE won't autocomplete @J... for me, so apologies for not using it. $\endgroup$ – Harper May 25 '17 at 14:31
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Hide it in plain sight

If you look at any of those Pacific islands, you see a fairly sprawling Atoll that is readily visible. However, on closer inspection, at least 95% and often 100% of it is slightly underwater.

If it is not entirely underwater, perhaps a hush-hush nuclear test removed the last of the above-water island, leaving a toxic radioactive wasteland no one would ever go to. Except that there was no nuclear test, this was a cover story, the work of the cabal.

Or the tiny island is a wildlife refuge, under control of a nature organization again controlled by the cabal.

It looks like the same old boring underwater reef

So instead of making your island invisible to satellites, and aircraft, you only need to make it look slightly underwater.

You excavate material from from the deeper ocean to raise your atoll out of the water, while installing the active camouflage to keep it looking like last year's overheads.

Or in hard-mode, make it an actual known island, which gets occasional visitors... And conceal your section of the atoll from those visitors. Imagine if your base was in fact Midway, replete with functioning airfield. It's known to the world as an ETOPS diversion field. Your aircraft fly at max speed, snake in there when there are no satellites overhead, unload, replenish fuel, and continue onto their flightplan destination. Their late arrival is explained away as economy cruise.

So in this case you subvert the LOST problem: the stricken airliner simply lands at the publicly known field, gets serviced, is flown out, and none's the wiser.

And if any outsiders discover the secret part of the island, then you loose the black smoke and polar bears!

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The Pacific Ocean is unfathomably big. There's lots of space in it to hide an island. Somewhere between New Zealand and Argentina is appropriate.

The ocean is flat, but even from standing on top of a hundred foot destroyer, the horizon is only 12 miles away. So you don't actually have to keep boats very far away to hide effectively. Note that this also works for ship-based radar.

This leaves satellites and planes. If this is a natural island and not a floating habitat you're going to be picked up on radar/gravity deflection images of the planet as a big lump on the ocean floor, because islands are just mountain peaks, and mountains are big. So you have to pretend to be a seamount or a small atoll or something. I recommend seamount, remote atolls attract biologists.

So if you're a seamount, you need to paint ocean colors on the tops of things so you look pretty much like an ocean from space. This isn't going to work forever, so I recommend you invest in an artificial cloud generator. A big plume of steam will work in a pinch, but I recommend heating a big patch of ocean miles upwind of you, then seeding cloud formation over the island. You won't need to do it all the time, just whenever a satellite with a good camera is looking, and you should have plenty of advance warning of that kind of thing.

So that just leaves planes and really persistent boats. A combination of electronic counter-measures, radar-spoofing transmitters, fake GPS signals, and just plane (heh) fake clouds should keep most planes and boats reliably off-course. Worst case scenario, torpedo the boat/missile the plane, recover/fake the transponder and/or black box, and put it on a different plane that crashes somewhere else to divert attention. Or don't. Boats disappear all the time.

The really easy way to do this is just put the whole civilization on a big floating habitat so it can move around and actively dodge boats and planes. Then you can get away with only steam plume for satellites because nobody will notice that one spot in the ocean is constantly covered in clouds.

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