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Volcanoes versus the Net

20 January 2022

A couple of days ago I got an email from a long-time regular Aardvark reader.

He reminded me that Tonga's almost total communications blackout after the recent volcanic erruption was the perfect time for ham radio operators to kick into gear and provide that essential line of contact.

Were there any ham radio operators left in Tonga?

Has the proliferation of easy internet resulted in a reduction in the number of emergency-ready ham radio operators that step in to take up the slack when major disasters strike?

Based on a bit of online digging it seems that there are some hams in Tonga but very little has been heard from them since the erruption.

Part of this may have been due to the disruption of electricity and also the poor propagation conditions in the wake of the erruption, due to huge levels of static noise and even volcanic lightning occuring.

Here is one discussion on the matter.

The fact that Tonga was so completely cut off from the rest of the world, despite satellite and undersea cables, indicates just how important it is that we don't allow the hobby of ham radio to disappear -- or wane to the point that it is no longer something we can rely on.

Forums, chat rooms, Zoom, voice chats and all sorts of other IP-based communciations services have been pushing the hobby of ham radio into the background for several decades now. The fact that most modern electronic gear is also not designed to be repaired is yet another factor producing a decline in interest.

I recall, when just a young lad, marvelling at how an old man in a shed littered with dials, knobs, glowing valves and wires, could use the huge array of wires and aluminium tubing on the roof of his shed to talk with people half a world away -- for free! That helped inspire me into an interest and a career in electronics.

These days, kids are unlikely to be particularly impressed that it takes so much time, effort, expense and equipment to do something that can be far more simply and effectively achieved in a few seconds with a smartphone and the internet. I guess that makes it much harder to recruit new members to the ham radio community.

The fact that, as a kid still of a single-digit age, I built my first radio transmitter using parts scavanged from an old public address amplifier I'd been given was also another reason I got so involved in amateur radio and electronics as a hobby. These days there's very little you can do with the e-waste you find on the junk pile.

Unfortunately, if Tonga is anything to go by, we won't realise what we've lost in respect to the dwindling community of amateur radio operators, until we need it.

In the event of a major natural disaster here in NZ we're unlikely to lose all our connectivity with the world but, just as a worst-case scenario, a significant meteorite strike to Pacific North of NZ (and the resulting tidal/siesmic disturbances) or volcanic erruption here could do a real number on the undersea cables. If it was a big enough event then the amount of crap hurled into the atmosphere could also compromise satellite communications.

In such a situation, I'm pretty sure that clever, frequency agile ham operators could find a way to at least make preliminary contact with the rest of the world to report our situation and summon aid of a suitable type and quantity.

Perhaps the biggest risk to public safety in such a situation would be the legions of zombies roaming the streets crying "why is Facebook down?" :)

So, should we be making more of an effort to protect and preserve the hobby of ham radio, if only because it could be a crucial part of our civil emergency response?

Have we underestimated the importance of ham radio operators in times of civil disaster or emergency?

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