A military-funded project called the High-frequency Active Auroral Research Program (HAARP), located on remote tundra in Alaska, jumps off the horizon just past mile marker 11 on the Glenn Highway. The program's main facility sits behind a barbed wire fence that stretches as far as the eye can see. What grabs the imagination of most, though, are the couple hundred oversized antennas, described by legions of journalists and conspiracy theorists, including Noah Schactman of Wired: "180 silver poles rising from the ground, each a foot thick, 72 feet tall, and spaced precisely 80 feet apart ... Geometric patterns form and reform in every direction, Athenian in their symmetry. It looks like a bionic forest."
Those fanged metal structures have made the sleepy, rural Alaska village of Gakona, population 200, a lightning rod for controversy. Like many federally-funded projects in the Last Frontier, HAARP saw its financial peak when former Alaska U.S. Sen. Ted Stevens was at the height of his power in the mid-2000s. Theories abound about what goes on inside HAARP, which was founded in 1990 to conduct research on the ionosphere, an upper level of the atmosphere interesting to scientists for its importance in shortwave radio communication and because it's a place where plasma forms naturally.
Ask the Air Force what they're doing in Gakona these days and a spokesman stationed in New Mexico will tell you to find out yourself during HAARP's open house. They usually hold those every couple years during the summer. Even though all the research is unclassified, the Air Force doesn't offer much else in the way of explaining what's going on, except to point out their noble interest in studying Earth's atmosphere to further scientific knowledge and maybe improve homeland security along the way.
On a theoretical level, the HAARP website notes that federal scientists are working to unlock the mysteries to other natural phenomena that have captivated humans for millennia. They're studying lightning, aurora borealis and the like. They've even learned how to induce both of those on a limited scale, according to a statement included on a Navy defense budget. HAARP also exists, the project's website notes, to learn more about shortwave radio communications and its application in global positioning systems, among other things. Maybe HAARP was used to search for Saddam's WMD. Maybe it's utilized to gather intel on Iran's underground nuclear facilities. Who knows?
Plenty of other theories have been explored about what exactly Uncle Sam is up to way out in the middle of nowhere, Alaska. Here are a few of the best conspiracy theories in a nutshell.
Could HAARP antennas be generating earthquakes? Eric Dubay, a conspiracy blogger and American ex-pat that lives in Thailand, is part of the crowd that believes the U.S. used HAARP to cause the 8.9-magnitude earthquake that rocked northern Japan in March 2011, leading to the devastating Fukushima-Daiichi nuclear meltdown.
The gist of the argument from Dubay and others is that waves generated by HAARP antennas are focused on a specific part of the ionosphere with enough force to make the entire thing buckle into space; the ionosphere snaps back toward the ground with enough precision to cause a massive earthquake that devastates a strategic target that furthers American economic and defense interests.
Others claim the U.S., for bizarre reasons mostly unsubstantiated, caused the January 2010 earthquake in Haiti. The best guess anyone has come up with is that Haiti was the perfect place for a test run of sorts, which is among 13 reasons included in a post on Godlike Productions that argues the U.S. should be suspected for causing the quake in Port au Prince. A column by another conspiracy theorist on UFO-Blogger.com goes a step further in trying to predict what will be hit next: "Most likely the next target will be the New Madrid fault line in the South- Midwestern United States."
Kansans can rest easy, though: Pervez Hoodbhoy, a Pakistani nuclear physicist, tears the earthquake theory to shreds in response to an Islamist group that blamed HAARP for devastating floods in Punjab.
There's a storied tradition of blaming devastating hurricanes on HAARP. That trend hit a fever pitch in 2005: first it was Katrina, then Rita, then Wilma.
Interestingly, HAARP saw its funding peak that same year at $49.3 million. But why would the U.S. government want to inflict devastation on its own citizens? And how exactly would scientists in Alaska generate Atlantic hurricanes with shortwave radio communication? And what ... well, really, what else needs to be said?
"This is absolute hogwash," Stanford professor Umran Inan told Popular Science. "There's absolutely nothing we can do to disturb the earth's [weather] systems. Even though the power HAARP radiates is very large, it's miniscule compared with the power of a lightning flash -- and there are 50 to 100 lightning flashes every second. HAARP's intensity is very small."
Of all the conspiracies floating around about HAARP, this is perhaps the most entertaining, and scientifically farfetched.
The government is using the shortwave radio communication generated in Gakona, so the story goes, to control the minds of unsuspecting Americans.
What conspiracy theorists believe the Feds are trying to control is hazy. A good place to try and get a grip on this one is at the conspiracy website HAARP.net or watch Jesse Ventura's rendition when you have a few minutes. Then go ahead and read Popular Science's rebuttal.
Beyond the conspiracies
What makes HAARP susceptible to conspiracy criticism is simple. The facility doesn't open its doors in the same way as other federally-funded research facilities around the country, and it doesn't go to great efforts to explain the importance of its research to the public.
If you want to visit Oak Ridge National Laboratories (a Manhattan Project-era facility with exponentially greater funding but also a heavy focus on top-secret nuclear technology) you can show up to the visitor center for a public tour or schedule something more in-depth without much hassle. You can do the same at Los Alamos -- another bastion of the Manhattan Project -- in New Mexico. At both of those facilities, journalists can access unclassified research and talk directly to researchers and scientists.
None of that is possible at HAARP, though never expressly stated, probably in part because of the tinfoil-hatters that might storm Gakona if allowed visits of any kind. When the movement for more information is spearheaded by Jesse Ventura and TruTV, it's easy enough to laugh and let the real research continue away from the public eye. But the closed-shop tendencies could prove the facility's undoing as budget hawks, like the "super" bipartisan group in Congress assigned to dig up trillions of dollars in savings over the next decade, are eager to score political points.
What's to keep HAARP from ending up on the chopping block? Perhaps opening the project up to public scrutiny might keep those federal dollars flowing to Alaska.