The Magic of Number Stations

Waterfall display for "The Buzzer", radio station UVB-76 on 4625 KHz. The lower sideband is clearly suppressed. Uploaded to Wikipedia Commons on 28 June 2010 by Janm67
“Waterfall display for “The Buzzer”, radio station UVB-76 on 4625 KHz. The lower sideband is clearly suppressed.” Uploaded to Wikipedia Commons on 28 June 2010 by Janm67 with a GNU Free Documentation License.

One of the world’s enduring mysteries is the nature of number stations, which are shortwave radio stations that broadcast random lists of numbers, morse code, or strange bursts of sound, such as the odd beeps on Russian station UVB-76. Nobody knows what the purpose of the number stations is for certain, but we do know that they have been broadcasting for decades, that the transmitters have an immense amount of power, and that stations broadcast in languages that range from Bulgarian to Chinese. These facts probably mean that only nation states would have the resources to operate these communication systems. The most likely explanation is that these sites are tools for global espionage networks. It may be difficult to believe, but even in this internet age the most secure way to transmit one way messages may be through shortwave radio, which can’t be traced to the listener. The messages are almost certainly transmitted using one time pads, a probably unbreakable form of encryption.

The number stations attract the attention of short wave radio enthusiasts, who sometimes try to determine the station’s location. For example, radio enthusiasts tracked the British numbers station “the Lincolnshire Poacher” to Cyprus. People also follow their behavior, which can suddenly change radically. The Russian station UVB-76 has been broadcasting strange beeps since 1982, but every now and then will transmit something random, such as the music to Swan Lake. This is perhaps less unnerving than the music box melodies of the Swedish Rhapsody Numbers Station. People speculate that the stations in some cases may be dead hand stations, to convey information in the event of a nuclear war, or even a form of psychological warfare, to exaggerate the size of a nation’s espionage network. There is no good information on numbers stations from the people who operate them, though, so much of the information on Numbers Stations is speculation. What is certain is that anyone with a shortwave radio can listen to these broadcasts, some of which broadcast on a regular schedule.

I came across a discussion of Numbers Stations on a fictional mystery podcast set in the Pacific Northwest, called Tanis, which I highly recommend. It’s important to follow the podcast in order, so please start with episode 101 or you’ll be lost. For more technological mysteries, please view my post on Cicada 3301, or my blog post on the Vela Incident. I think that the best part of that blog post were the discussion posts that followed, which debated the possibility that the Vela Incident involved a violation of the nuclear test ban treaty. The South African nuclear program also has other mysteries associated with it, including the 2007 attack by two separate teams on the Pelindaba nuclear research center. There are some global mysteries that are truly terrifying, and this incident was one of them. Compared to this, maybe the Swedish Rhapsody Numbers Station isn’t so creepy.

Would you like to read about more unsolved mysteries? Please read my post about the ghost ship called the Baltimore, which was found with one woman aboard, after the entire crew disappeared. And that woman was certainly now what she seemed.

Shawn Smallman, 2016


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