by Brian Dunning
Filed under Conspiracies, General Science, Urban Legends
October 7, 2008
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Also available in Spanish
Hold on tight, because the U.S. Government is using HAARP, the High Frequency Active Auroral Research Program in Alaska. Some charge that this secret government project can modify the weather, creating hurricanes and typhoons; that it can create earthquakes and superheat the atmosphere; or even that it can destroy aircraft anywhere in the world; and control the minds of its victims. What do we say on Skeptoid when we hear stories that sound far fetched or implausible? Be skeptical.
Let's talk about the claims made about HAARP, but first let's talk about what it actually is and what exactly it's really capable of. First of all, there's nothing remotely secret or even classified about HAARP. No security clearance is needed to visit and tour the site, and HAARP usually holds an open house every summer during which anyone can see everything there. During the rest of the year, research is conducted. The universities that have participated in HAARP research include University of Alaska, Stanford, Penn State, Boston College, Dartmouth, Cornell, University of Maryland, University of Massachusetts, MIT, Polytechnic University, UCLA, Clemson and the University of Tulsa. There are several other similar research stations around the world, namely the Sura facility in Russia, EISCAT in Norway, the Arecibo observatory in Puerto Rico, and the HIPAS observatory near Fairbanks, operated by UCLA. If you look at HAARP on Google Earth, you can see there's not much there, and the current view shows only four cars in the small parking lot.
HAARP consists of an observatory and an adjacent 28-acre field with 180 HF (high frequency) antennas, each 72 feet tall, with a maximum transmission power of 3600 kilowatts, about 75 times the power of a commercial radio station, but only a tiny fraction of the strength of the natural solar radiation striking the same part of the ionosphere at which HAARP is aimed. Although the observatory operates continuously, the HF antenna array is activated only rarely for specific experiments, which average about once a month.
Sadly for the conspiracy theorists, HAARP has no potential to affect weather. The frequency of energy that HAARP transmits cannot be absorbed by the troposphere or the stratosphere, only by the ionosphere, many kilometers higher than the highest atmospheric weather systems.
The ionosphere is created and replenished daily by solar radiation. At night, the level of ionization drops quickly to very low levels at lower altitudes of 50 to 100 miles, but at higher altitudes over 200 miles it takes most of the night for the ionization to disperse. During the night, when the natural ionosphere is minimal, HAARP is capable of creating a weak artificial aurora that can actually be observed by sensitive cameras at the observatory, though they are far too faint for the naked eye. During the daytime, solar radiation ionizes the ionosphere so powerfully that HAARP's weak artificial effects are the proverbial drop in the bucket, and are erased almost immediately when the transmitter is turned off.
You might ask "What's the point of HAARP?" If it's not to wreak global destruction, what good is it? Communication and navigation signals are sent through the atmosphere for a broad range of civilian and military purposes. Guided missiles rely on digital transmissions which can be affected or jammed by a whole variety of natural and artificial causes. Global Positioning System and encrypted communications all need to be able to make it to their recipients in wartime, regardless of the atmospheric and electromagnetic conditions. The study of these effects is the primary reason that DARPA, the U.S. Air Force, and the U.S. Navy contribute to HAARP's funding. In addition, by bouncing signals off the ionosphere at at altitude of 100km, HAARP has been able to create Extremely Low Frequency, or ELF, waves as low as 1 Hertz, which can potentially be used for worldwide communication including reaching submarines, though at an almost uselessly slow data rate. But before you conclude that these ELF waves might be used for creating earthquakes, note that the maximum ELF signal amplitude produced by HAARP has been measured at less than one ten-millionth of the Earth's natural background field.
So if HAARP is so anticlimactically mundane, why all the conspiracy theories? HAARP is operated by MarshCreek, LLC, an Alaska Native Corporation under contract to the Office of Naval Research. Anytime the ONR or DARPA or the military have their hand in something, paranoid types tend to come out of the woodwork and blame anything they can imagine on it. So regardless of whether HAARP is in the atmospheric research business or the rubber duckie business, they were pretty much doomed to conspiracy charges from the beginning.
But there is also a secondary reason that HAARP has been suspected of deeper, darker purposes, and it goes back to its early construction. The winning contractor to build HAARP was ARCO Power Technologies, or APTI. ARCO has historically been one of Alaska's largest employers and they initially set up APTI as a subsidiary to construct power plants using Alaska's vast natural gas reserves. One scientist employed at APTI was Dr. Bernard Eastlund, a physicist of some note. Among Dr. Eastlund's accomplishments was the co-invention of the fusion torch, and the original owner of a 1985 U.S. patent on a "Method and apparatus for altering a region in the earth's atmosphere, ionosphere, and/or magnetosphere." Dr. Eastlund's method required a location near the poles, where the lines of the Earth's magnetic field are more or less perpendicular to the surface, like Alaska, and presumed a natural gas power source. A few years later, the HAARP program began. A coincidence? No way, say the conspiracy theorists.
It seems logical to me that if I were ARCO and wanted to get in on a lucrative government construction contract and sell them my Alaskan natural gas, I might well set up a subsidiary with one of the world's leading experts in the field. To me this looks like a smart business move by ARCO and by the government; how it would suggest an evil conspiracy to destroy the world, I'm just not seeing that.
Dr. Eastlund's patent, which has since become popularly known (though inaccurately) as the "HAARP patent", is widely reproduced online, often with much commentary from authors making their own interpretations of how it might be used. Specifically, the patent involves using natural gas to generate electricity to create electromagnetic radiation to excite a tiny section of the ionosphere to about 2 electron volts, thus moving it upward along the lines of the magnetic field. The conspiracy theorists, once again, completely ignore the fact that this can only happen in the ionosphere, and they interpret it as a weather control system or earthquake generating system. Such extrapolations are without any plausible foundation.
A further disconnect in this conspiracy claim is that Dr. Eastlund's patent was for a speculative and unproven device approximately one million times as powerful as HAARP. The patent does not mention HAARP, and none of its drawings remotely resemble anything built at HAARP. For perspective, HAARP's antenna array measures about 1000 feet on a side. A device such as that imagined by Dr. Eastlund would have been 14 miles on a side, with one million antenna elements, compared to HAARP's 180. Furthermore, Dr. Eastlund left APTI to found his own company before the HAARP program began, and was never associated with the program.
One of the most vocal critics of HAARP is Nick Begich, son of the late Alaskan congressman of the same name. He writes as Dr. Nick Begich, but his Ph.D. is in traditional medicine and was purchased via mail from the unaccredited Open International University in India, and included no coursework or curriculum. Begich is a proponent of a number of new age energy healing techniques of his own invention. In 1995 he self-published Angels Don't Play This HAARP. This book kick-started many of the popular rumors about HAARP, including that mass mind control is one of its goals.
A conspiracy theorist named Benjamin Fulford has made some YouTube videos charging that HAARP is responsible for most of the severe earthquakes around the world, and that the United States threatens nations like Japan with earthquakes if they don't "do what we want". He believes that HAARP accomplishes this by heating up water in the atmosphere the same way that a microwave oven does, though he is not clear on how warming a tiny patch of upper atmosphere in Alaska would cause an earthquake in Asia with pinpoint precision. There is no known correlation between temperature and earthquakes. Fulford's microwave theory is also wide of the mark. HAARP's maximum frequency is 10 MHz, and the dielectric heating effect of a microwave oven requires 2.5 GHz, or 250 times higher than HAARP. Dielectric heating also requires reversing the polarity of the field more than a million times a second, one thousand times HAARP's fastest frequency. A note to conspiracy theorists: At least pretend to know what you're talking about.
Fulford bolsters his claim with some beautiful video of dramatically illuminated clouds, which he calls "earthquake lights" and believes constitutes evidence that HAARP caused the 2008 Sichuan earthquake in China. In fact these are simply clouds illuminated by the sun after it has dipped below the horizon, and are quite common.
One of the more colorful HAARP conspiracy theorists is a woman on YouTube who goes by the name "dbootsthediva", lately more commonly known as "the crazy sprinkler lady". Her YouTube page contains about 50 videos she has made of her house and yard, with her making commentary about how HAARP is responsible for virtually every little thing she sees — everything from a rainbow in her sprinklers, to a moiré pattern on the clapboard siding of her house, to moving the ground under her feet and causing the picture to shake. She manages to see HAARP's alleged affects wherever and whenever she looks, despite the fact that HAARP is rarely actually transmitting.
But I would go blue in the face long before I could describe even a fraction of all the bizarre fears about HAARP trumpeted on the Internet. By now I've learned there's no hope of changing the minds of some people who have latched onto the idea that global domination is as easy as the erection of what amounts to little more than 180 cell phone towers — if destroying another country was this trivial, you'd think America's enemies would have done it to us long ago. DARPA has its hand in many research projects, like robotics and the Grand Challenge autonomous vehicle races, all of which have civilian as well as military applications and all of which represent good science. When you hear the assumption that just because DARPA funds something it must automatically be an evil superweapon, you have good reason to be skeptical.
By Brian Dunning
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Cite this article:
Dunning, B. "HAARP Myths." Skeptoid Podcast. Skeptoid Media,
7 Oct 2008. Web.
30 Nov 2015. <http://skeptoid.com/episodes/4122>
References & Further Reading
Dupont, D. "Nuclear Explosions in Orbit." Scientific American. 1 Jun. 2004, Number 290: 100-107.
Eastlund, Bernard J. "Method and apparatus for altering a region in the earth's atmosphere, ionosphere, and/or magnetosphere." United States Patent Database. Patent US, 11 Aug. 1987. Web. 9 Jan. 2010. <http://patft.uspto.gov/netacgi/nph-Parser?Sect1=PTO1&Sect2=HITOFF&d=PALL&p=1&u=/netahtml/PTO/srchnum.htm&r=1&f=G&l=50&s1=4,686,605.PN.&OS=PN/4,686,605&RS=PN/4,686,605>
HAARP. "HAARP Fact Sheet." The High Frequency Active Auroral Research Program. HAARP Alaska, 15 Jun. 2007. Web. 9 Jan. 2010. <http://www.haarp.alaska.edu/haarp/factSheet.html>
Inan, U. S., Bell, T. F. "Polar Aeronomoy and Radio Science (PARS) ULF/ELF/VLF Project." Stanford University Star Laboratory. Star.Stanford, 1 Jul. 2001. Web. 9 Jan. 2010. <http://www-star.stanford.edu/~vlf/pars/pars.htm>
Pike, John. "Extremely Low Frequency Communications Program." Federation of American Scientists. FAS, 26 Feb. 2004. Web. 12 Jan. 2010. <http://www.fas.org/nuke/guide/usa/c3i/elf.htm>
Ratcliffe, John Ashworth. An introduction to the ionosphere and magnetosphere. London: Cambridge University Press, 1972.
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