Alaska's High-Frequency Active Auroral Research Program (HAARP) has drawn its fair share of conspiracy theories over the years, as it sits in Gakona, an array of antennas intended to heat the Earth's ionosphere and study the effects. Fringe thinkers have tenuously linked HAARP to everything from the 2011 Japanese Earthquake to mind control and hurricanes.
But if there are no major earthquakes or bizarre global weather events in the coming weeks or months, the folks at HAARP may have some explaining to do -- the facility has apparently been shuttered since June, the power turned off as HAARP waits for a hoped-for change in contractors to operate the facility.
HAARP is a government-owned facility, primarily overseen by the U.S. Air Force, though the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) funds a number of grant projects there. The project was previously managed by the Air Force Research Laboratory at Hanscom Air Force Base in Massachusetts, but is currently overseen by a research unit at Kirtland Air Force Base in Albuquerque, N.M. after the Hanscom unit was moved in 2011.
The closure was first reported by the American Radio Relay League on Monday. An article there quoted Dr. James Keeney, who now helps manage the HAARP project at Kirtland Air Force Base, as saying "Currently the site is abandoned. It comes down to money. We don't have any."
Dr. Keeney, reached by phone Wednesday morning, would not comment further for this story. Researchers with the University of Alaska Fairbanks, a frequent collaborator on HAARP studies, were able to independently confirm that the facility was indeed closed -- the power and internet are currently off and the facility is unmanned.
The HAARP website was also offline as of Wednesday.
The shutdown is reported to be only a temporary one, with the facility having been shuttered sometime between late May and mid-June.
"It was a surprise to all of us to hear it was shutting down," said Dr. Bill Bristow, a professor of electrical engineering at UAF.
Air Force officials are hopeful that the facility would open and resume operations in mid-August. DARPA currently has a sizeable funding bloc allocated for additional ionospheric research in the fall of 2013, so it will likely have to be open for that research.
The shuttering of HAARP has apparently arisen from a contractor regime change. The facility's operations were previously administered by Kaktovik Inupiat Corp. subsidiary -- and 8(a) contractor -- Marsh Creek, LLC. Reportedly in talks to take over the contract is regional Alaska Native corporation Ahtna, which oversees the area of Gakona, where HAARP is located.
Neither Marsh Creek nor Ahtna returned requests for comment Wednesday.
Former UAF Geophysical Institute director Dr. Roger Smith described the shutdown as the result of an "inter-contract period." He added that such contractor changes aren't uncommon when it comes to operating research stations.
The uncertainty surrounding when exactly Ahtna might plan to step in to reopen the facility is a bit unusual, though. Still, there's some kind of deadline that seems certain to see the facility resume operations later this year, at least temporarily.
"I understand that ... DARPA intends to run a campaign this fall, so the facility will be open for that," Smith said. "So the notion that it is completely closed down is not quite correct, though it is certainly not operational at the moment."
Though HAARP is continually manned and maintained when operational, there aren't always experiments being conducted at the facility.
"HAARP doesn't operate continually," said Dr. Brenton Watkins, professor emeritus of physics at UAF. "It operates in a 'campaign' mode with kind of two-week periods of activity. I've been involved in every operational campaign for -- I think -- the last five years."
He said that though the facility being closed in the summer time is better for the equipment inside than if the heat were shut off in the winter, he still can't get in to conduct maintenance on the equipment he works with. He said that he primarily works with a "diagnostic radar" intended to better understand experiments as they're conducted.
Despite the optimism that the facility would reopen in the coming weeks or months, there remain some troubling questions about the future of HAARP. The ARRL reported that there was no budget request for HAARP in the 2015 fiscal year, which starts Oct. 1, 2014, and that the facility's diesel generators are in need of upgrades that could end up costing in excess of $500,000 to meet Environmental Protection Agency Clean Air Act requirements.
The uncertainty about HAARP's future could also signal a fading interest on the part of the U.S. military in continued HAARP research projects, perhaps due to a lack of viable defense applications. Wired Magazine reported in 2009 that HAARP cost about $10 million each year to operate, and noted that military officials were getting antsy as early as 1999 about turning HAARP into a viable military research installation -- "...the Pentagon wanted to know when its overpriced conspiracy-magnet would produce that battle-ready technology they'd been promised," wrote Noah Shachtman.
Much of that, however, remains speculation. In the meantime, conspiracy theorists will just have to continue to posit that HAARP is controlling people's minds, the tectonic plates, and even the weather.
"If (HAARP) could control the weather, I think (the military) would be a whole lot happier," Watkins joked.
Contact Ben Anderson at ben(at)alaskadispatch.com