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Scientists make last-ditch effort to save HAARP research facility

Dermot Cole
Antennas for the newly completed High Frequency Active Auroral Research Program (HAARP) is seen near Gakona, Alaska on Wednesday, June 27, 2007. The world's most advanced high-energy radio physics experiment was declared fully operational in a Wednesday afternoon ribbon-cutting ceremony. (AP Photo/Mark Farmer) Mark Farmer

FAIRBANKS -- Dozens of scientists from universities and research institutions are campaigning to stop the Department of Defense from demolishing the world's most powerful ionospheric research facility this summer.

The Air Force plans to start dismantling the $290 million High Frequency Active Auroral Research Program in Gakona as soon as the final research project ends June 10.

"This destruction is not in the nation's interest and the scientific community is speaking with one voice to urge you (to) intervene to prevent the loss," Robert McCoy, director of the University of Alaska Geophysical Institute, wrote to Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel on Friday.

He submitted a petition signed by 26 scientists from around the world asking the Department of Defense to "begin serious negotiations with other government agencies to find a sustainable model to ensure this unique and extremely valuable national resource is available for ionospheric research in the future."

He said that more than 40 scientists took part in a workshop a year ago in which they testified about the value of HAARP. There are two competing facilities in the world similar to HAARP, but the Alaska complex has greater potential and its destruction would be a "tragic loss," many of the scientists said in letters to Hagel.

Craig Heinselman, who directs one of the competing facilities in Sweden, wrote that "HAARP is unquestionably the most powerful and agile of the three and provides the broader space science community with capabilities that are simply unavailable elsewhere."

News that the Air Force plans to dismantle the research facility has led to an "outpouring of interest from the scientific community, in the United States and globally, in maintaining HAARP for future scientific use," Sen. Lisa Murkowski said in a letter to Hagel.

"Time is short to save this strategic and valuable national asset from the wrecking ball," she wrote Friday. She asked the Department of Defense to collaborate with the University of Alaska to see if the university or a consortium can be formed to take over the site.

The ionospheric research facility, championed by the late Sen. Ted Stevens through earmarks, is set to close this month. The Air Force says it has other priorities.

The complex went to full power in 2007. It has 180 antennas on 30 acres and uses electric power generated on the site to heat electrons in the ionosphere, 55 to 370 miles above Earth, and study changes in the flow of charged particles. HAARP does not heat the atmosphere.

According to the Air Force, no entity has stepped forward to take on the cost of running HAARP, estimated at up to $5 million a year.

'Small price to pay'

"In the scheme of the defense budget, $2.5 million a year is a small price to pay to maintain a facility which cost the American taxpayer $290 million to construct and which, according to the scientific community, has a bright and important future," Murkowski said.

David Walker, deputy assistant secretary for science and engineering in the Air Force, wrote to Murkowski in May, saying it will cost about $3.5 million to dismantle the facility and restore the site, though that cost estimate will be "refined" in the months ahead.

During a 2013 conference on the future of HAARP, one official said that a "good starting estimate" of restoration costs would be $15 million, according to a report by the National Academy of Sciences.

Walker said valuable equipment will be removed while scientific instruments, computers, power generators and other items will be "re-purposed for other government programs or declared excess" this summer.

Walker said cleanup of the site would take place in 2015. He repeated statements made at a Senate Armed Service Committee hearing that the Air Force had tried but failed to find a solution.

"No major research organization presented an ownership plan with adequate funding for the operation of the site and the level of research interest was determined to be significantly below the level needed to cover operations expenses," Walker wrote May 20. "The decision was made to close the site and re-purpose government equipment."

National asset?

Murkowski forwarded a series of letters from research scientists around the world asking that HAARP not be demolished.

"Unfortunately, the Air Force has already commenced dismantling the HAARP instruments and equipment -- even while experiments are still ongoing and planned," James Sheerin, a professor at Eastern Michigan University, wrote to the office of Sen. Carl Levin, a Michigan Democrat. His research has dealt with satellite navigation and communication and ways to forecast and possibly mitigate the impact of irregularities in the ionosphere.

"The promise and reduction to practice of this work to operational systems has yet to be fully realized and would face a premature end if HAARP were closed," he said.

He said this leaves no time to work out an agreement to "prevent a regrettable permanent destruction of this national asset."

Reach Dermot Cole at dermot@alaskadispatch.com.

 


By DERMOT COLE
dermot@alaskadispatch.com