Microkhan by Brendan I. Koerner

The Enigma of Kagnew

April 13th, 2009 · 6 Comments

kagnewstationNow a somewhat secretive Eritrean military base, Kagnew Station was one of America’s key listening posts for much of the Cold War. Radios located here are able to pick up clear signals from thousands of miles away; local AM stations in Asmara have reported hearing Finnish broadcasters on occasion.

Altitude plays a big role in Kagnew’s magic, as does the relative quiet of the plains below. But those factors alone can’t quite explain why a short-wave radio at Kagnew can pick up Bulgarian chatter with little difficulty. In I Didn’t Do It For You, a history of modern Eritrea, Michaela Wrong offers a scientific guess:

Some experts have speculated that Asmara benefits from another intriguing natural phenomenon—”ducting”—in which radio signals rise through the earth’s atmosphere, bounce horizontally along under the troposphere and return to earth via “ducts” thousands of miles away from their original source.

Oodles more on Kagnew here, a site maintained by American veterans from the listening-post days. The user-submitted photos are excellent time wasters.


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6 Comments so far ↓

  • Robert

    Don’t know if this might be another explaination of the phenomenon…

    Years ago I read online of South African police band getting scooped up by a satellite ground station and being rebroadcast by another ground-based satellite station in the states. The signals were being incorporated by the ground station into the signal being directed at the orbiting satellite.

    I had hoped to rediscover the website I first read this on, but haven’t at the time I posted this.

    And lastly, found your site via Metafilter. Congrats.

  • Brendan I. Koerner

    Thanks for the backgrounder, Robert. If you ever dig up that site, please lemme know.

    And great to hear about the Metafilter love. A much-needed bright spot on a day chock full o’ glitches. Hope you’ll keep checking the blog in the coming week and month (and years?).

  • Terry Tompkins

    Hi, I am writing a book about my dad’s life and he was stationed at Kagnew Station (then Radio Marina) and I appreciate your article.

    Just one point on the comment by Robert –

    The phenomenon was occuring long before the first artificial satellite was put into orbit by the Soviet Union in 1957.

    Again. Thanks for the article.

    PS. I was born in Asmara at Radio Marina. In fact my birth certificate is vey unique.

  • Brendan I. Koerner

    @Terry Tompkins: Thanks for the comment. Let me know when your book is out–sounds like a fascinating read.

  • Dean Tiernan

    I am a Kagnew Station vet and radio broadcaster. Skip is a well known phenomonen in the AM band and is dependent upon the ionosphere. Because of the altitude our AM station was heard in many distant locations. We received a letter from a Finnish “dxer” that is on the web. Ducting affects the FM band and is somewhat seasonal. I wouldn’t put much faith in the satellite explanation. The last thing the military would want is extra signals being bounced around their satnet.

  • Brendan I. Koerner

    @Dean Tiernan: Belated thanks for the comment. Amazing that the signal could be heard as far as Finland. The electromagnetic spectrum is a wondrous thing.