Internet conspiracy theorists are claiming that a former U.S. military ionospheric research facility in Alaska is to blame for the back-to-back hurricanes that have flooded Houston, ravaged the Caribbean and Florida, and killed scores of people.
The conspiracy theorists believe the High Frequency Active Auroral Research Program site is a weather-altering weapon in disguise. They claim that HAARP’s radio waves can somehow cause, or worsen, storms—and that the government is behind it all. (That is, when HAARP isn’t controlling minds, conducting long-range spying operations, or threatening to “capsize” the planet.)
That, of course, is untrue. HAARP is a science facility that’s no longer under military control—and nothing that HAARP does has any bearing at all on the weather.
“We’re well aware of the conspiracy theory stuff,” Sue Mitchell, public information officer at the University of Alaska at Fairbanks’ Geophysical Institute—which oversees HAARP—told The Daily Beast. “I’ve been getting lots of telephone calls about why we’re causing hurricanes.”
“The site itself is strictly a scientific research site,” former HAARP project manager John Heckscher told Canadian Broadcast Corporation in 1996, around the time misinformation about HAARP began taking root.
Heckscher’s explanation, endlessly repeated by frustrated scientists and government officials over the past two decades, hasn’t stopped the conspiracy theorists from spreading their ideas. When billionaire technologist Richard Branson tweeted that “man-made climate change is a key factor in the intensity of hurricanes,” one Twitter-user replied, “Man-made as In [sic] geo-engineered? I agree.”
The tweeter added the hashtag #HAARP, joining a seemingly growing coterie of online skeptics demanding the “truth” about the Alaska facility.
“HAARP may allow the military to modify and weaponize the weather, by triggering earthquakes, floods and hurricane [sic],” tweeted The Blow of Reality website, a self-described purveyor of “public news that matters the most.”
The website promoted a Sept. 9 story by YourNewsWire.com that seems to be a major accelerant of the current round of HAARP conspiracy theories. The YourNewWire story falsely claimed that physicist Dr. Michio Kaku admitted that recent “‘man-made’ hurricanes have been the result of a government weather-modification program in which the skies were sprayed with nano particles and storms then ‘activated’ through the use of ‘lasers.’”
The story is a fabrication. “Kaku never said that HAARP was responsible for hurricanes,” fake-news-debunking website Snopes explained. “YouTube videos espousing the conspiracy theory splice together misinformation about HAARP with an interview Kaku did with CBS News in 2013 in which he talked about the possibility of governments one day being able to cause rainfall using lasers and other means.”
What HAARP actually does is far less frightening than what the truthers claim it does. Built by the U.S. Air Force starting in 1993, the 33-acre facility includes a high-frequency radio transmitter composed of 180 crisscrossing antennae that transmit up to 3.6 megawatts of power straight into the ionosphere, which extends from around 40 miles to around 300 miles up.
The power HAARP sends into the sky subtly changes the ionosphere, providing scientists on the ground with useful data that can support advancements in communications technology. The Air Force transferred HAARP to the University of Alaska in 2015.
“It’s radio science, it’s ionosphere physics and chemistry and even space science, since radio waves indeed go into space,” Paul Kossey, former HAARP director, told radio host—and noted conspiracy theorist—Alex Jones in 2008.
It’s impossible for HAARP’s transmission to affect the weather. “Weather is formed lower in the atmosphere,” Mitchell told The Daily Beast. “HAARP’s transmissions don’t interact with that layer.” But conspiracy-theorists conflate HAARP’s science mission with other government initiatives that actually do influence the weather—albeit on a small scale and with debatable benefit.
Since the 1940s, government agencies in the United States, Russia, China, and other countries have routinely “seeded” clouds with silver iodide, potassium iodide or solid carbon dioxide, creating ice crystals that melt and produce rainfall, essentially on command.
At least, that’s what the agencies hope will happen.
In fact, “in more complex cloud systems it is often difficult to determine a seeding effect on a cloud-by-cloud basis,” according to the American Meteorological Society. It’s possible that seeding doesn’t actually generate more rain than an area might get on its own.
The reality is, governments can’t control the weather on the level of individual hurricanes—but they certainly can make extreme weather worse by pumping carbon dioxide into the atmosphere and hastening destabilizing climate change.
But climate change doesn’t have the same sci-fi vibe that HAARP does—and doesn’t make for a very exciting narrative. So the HAARP conspiracy theory could endure. “I feel bad about people believing that,” Mitchell said. “I know they’re looking for someone to blame for all this. But HAARP is completely incapable of doing this any more than your AM radio station in town.”