There are no physical signs you’ve entered the National Radio Quiet Zone, a 13,000-square-mile area that covers the eastern half of West Virginia. But the silence gives you a signal. Somewhere around the Virginia-West Virginia state line, the periodic buzzes and pings of our smartphones stopped.
“Zero [service]. Searching,” said photographer John Poole, who traveled with me to the zone.
Almost every radio station disappeared, too, except forAllegheny Mountain Radio, which broadcasts at a low enough frequency to avoid being banned.
“We didn’t realize the rest of the world was getting connected and staying connected constantly, via phones and computers and all that,” said radio host Caleb Diller, who grew up in Pocahontas County, W.Va. “So we were kinda back in time a little bit. We hadn’t progressed to that.”
The county still hasn’t progressed to constant connectivity. That’s because it sits within a zone designed to protect a sophisticated radio telescope at the National Radio Astronomy Observatory from interference. The Robert C. Byrd Green Bank Telescope is the world’s largest fully steerable radio telescope.
Radio telescopes work by tracking and reading the energy waves that come from stars or gases, but they have to be located in sparsely populated areas to avoid electromagnetic interference.
The Green Bank Telescope looks like a giant dish. It’s as tall as the Washington Monument and large enough to fit 2 acres of land in it.
“It’s a huge collecting area and it’s what allows us to see these incredibly small energies that we’re trying to study,” says Karen O’Neil, who oversees the site. “The types of energies we look at are less than the energy of a single snowflake falling on the earth.”
Source: NPR, All Tech Considered. Get the transcript here.