The Russian Woodpecker
April 26th is the anniversary of the Chernobyl disaster, and twenty-four years after the accident the area around the plant is still a wasteland. Everyone who lived in the area was evacuated in the days following and, by and large, they have not been allowed to return (though reportedly a few elderly residents have given in to homesickness and come back to live a clandestine life). The so-called Zone of Alienation extends for thirty kilometers in every direction, and severe fallout conditions existed even outside that. The nuclear plant itself is a silent monument to the Soviet era, but it just so happens that it’s not the only mysterious site abandoned because of the accident.
In July 1976, shortwave radios throughout the world started picking up signals in the 4 to 30 MHz range, signals that were so powerful that even commercial airliners and telephone circuits in Europe could pick them up—with resulting difficulties in communication. The signal was a sharp set of pulses, up to twenty per second (though usually ten) that was reminiscent of a woodpecker when played over a speaker (sound file). The interference was accordingly dubbed the Russian Woodpecker, as amateur radio enthusiasts quickly triangulated the source to an area in what was then the USSR (in the modern day this is in the “three-corners” region where Ukraine, Belarus, and Russia meet).
Initial theories to explain the interference—discounting the crazy ones, as the Woodpecker arrived during the mid-1970s UFO craze—assumed that it was deliberate, part of a Soviet plan to jam Western radio, but it soon became clear that Warsaw Pact stations were affected by the Woodpecker too. It was a side effect of something else, though it wasn’t at first clear what.
The problem was solved when a second Woodpecker appeared in far Eastern Siberia, on the shores of the Amur River near the Pacific Ocean. If one assumed the first Woodpecker was a radar signal, it could reach as far as the central United States; the second Woodpecker was in just the right spot to give coverage to Alaska and the west coast of the US outside of the first one’s range. And there was reason to assume it was a radar signal: the frequency of the signal was in the middle of the shortwave band, the only radio frequencies that are regularly able to bounce off the Earth’s ionosphere and so travel long distances without drifting off into space.
Like all other electromagnetic radiation radio travels in straight lines when unimpeded. Since the Earth is not straight, past a certain distance the curvature of the Earth’s surface hides objects on or near the surface. The higher the radar source, the further one can see before this happens—this is one of the reasons why, until recently, the tallest man-made structures in the world were radio transmitters like the CN Tower or the now-defunct Warsaw Radio Mast—but for every extra kilometer of desired range a line-of-sight radar tower has to add an ever-increasing amount of height and it rapidly becomes unfeasible to build.
The solution is to use over-the-horizon (OTH) radar instead. This is trickier to do as, while shortwave frequencies will bounce off the ionosphere (and so roughly follow the curve of the Earth instead of a straight line), each bounce depends on the reflectivity of the ionosphere or, on the next reflection, of the ground—and that’s never perfect. Every bounce loses some energy and makes the return signal that much weaker. For that matter, the resolution of any radar depends on the length of the radio wave it uses; the only radio waves that are reflected off the ionosphere are relatively long, and the level of detail OTH radar shows is measured in kilometers. Not very good, but if you have an urgent strategic need to look over continental distances to see if a wave of nuclear missiles has been launched at you…that the Woodpecker was a Soviet OTH radar watching the US seemed likely.
As it happened, NATO had already figured this out on their own; in some documents the Woodpecker is called “Steel Yard” instead, which was NATO’s code name for it, but as that name was much less public than the ham enthusiast discussion, “Russian Woodpecker” won out in the end. What the NATO intelligence community did have was more details about the program. Their name for the project wasn’t random, as they had noticed an immense rectangle of metal girders and wires, 150 meters tall and a kilometer wide, going up not far from the then-obscure Chernobyl nuclear plant. It was facing north-northwest, the direction from which an American nuclear strike would come, and looked as if it would be able to detect the effect of hot rocket exhaust plumes on the ionosphere—effects large enough to circumvent the low resolution of the radar. A small town, one of the many the USSR worked very hard to keep off maps, named Chernobyl-2 was built around its base and housed approximately 1000 military and technical personnel to run the site.
The USSR refused to own up to the Russian Woodpecker, even though it was using frequencies set aside for civilian use. For a while, loosely organized bands of ham radio operators actually worked to spoof the Woodpecker out of frustration that their frequencies were being spammed. They could sometimes get it to change frequency away from their own interference, and even occasionally drive it off the air for a while (presumably because the operators realized they’d never detect anything anyway in the storm of counter-programming). Eventually, though, a rather different event silenced the Woodpecker permanently.
When the Soviet Union fell apart in 1991, Ukraine and Russia began talks about control over the numerous active Soviet military facilities in the Ukraine. The western Russian Woodpecker facility was not included in the talks, and what had been suspected in the larger world for some time was confirmed: the radar station had been too close to Chernobyl power plant. When its Reactor #4 melted down, the Woodpecker was heavily contaminated by fallout, and had to be abandoned. Chernobyl-2 was evacuated, and the station’s movable equipment was shipped off to the other Woodpecker in Siberia. The main antenna array was far too massive to ship out, so it stayed behind and (doubly isolated by state secrecy and nuclear radiation) even provoked rumours that it had somehow caused the meltdown.
It’s possible to visit Chernobyl’s Zone of Alienation; the Ukrainian government asks that you obtain a permit, but then you are free to go. Some people just go, permit be damned, though the local police have been cracking down recently because heavily irradiated items like TVs are showing up in second-hand stores after looters retrieved them. The radiation levels are high compared to normal levels, but not immediately dangerous: keep moving, don’t stay too long, and don’t bring any souvenirs out with you, and you’ll be alright. What’s left of the Russian Woodpecker (these days more commonly known by its Russian name, Duga-3 Gomel/Minsk) has attracted the attention of Cold War enthusiasts, aficionados of Soviet mega-engineering, and brave ham radio operators. After all, where else are you going to get a 150-meter tall antenna just lying around for you to use? The Woodpecker has also come to the attention of the tinfoil-hat crowd interested in HAARP, and in those circles is believed to have been a weather- or even mind-control weapon.
The remains of the facility and Chernobyl-2, now overgrown with forest, can be seen on Google Maps here.