20 June 1997: Link to HAARP and High Power Auroral Stimulation (HIPAS) Websites.

8 March 1997
Science, 21 February 1997, pp. 1060-61.


Ionosphere Research Lab
Sparks Fears in Alaska

SITKA, ALASKA -- Public outreach doesn't always unfold according to plan. Just ask University of Alaska plasma physicist Joseph Kan. Last fall. Kan traveled to Gakona, a tiny town 300 kilometers southeast of Fairbanks, where the Department of Defense (DOD) is constructing the world's most powerful ionospheric research laboratory. His mission was to chat with townspeople about a $90 million program known as HAARP, or High-Frequency Active Auroral Research Program -- an ambitious effort to study the roiling ionized gases of Earth's upper atmosphere. Kan was expecting technical questions, but instead he says he got an earful of "fears" about the facility. One person described seeing a mysterious "green glow" above the site; another claimed that it was making caribou walk backward and having a "mind-bending effect" on local residents.

Confusing caribou was not exactly what the military had in mind when in the late 1980s it decided to build the research facility at a DOD-owned site near Gakona. The project is designed to probe 50-kilometer patches of the ionosphere --the layer of charged gases that begins about 80 kilometers above Earth's surface and extends out beyond 400 kilometers -- with a powerful beam of high-frequency radio waves. When completed, HAARP will allow scientists to study fundamental physical and chemical processes in the ionosphere, and the military to develop and enhance long-range radio communications, surveillance, and navigation systems.

But the project has come under fire from a diverse slew of critics, ranging from local residents worried about their health to activists who charge that the military is planning to use HAARP for a variety of top-secret, sinister purposes. Last year, tor instance, anti-HAARP activist Nick Begich, son of a former Alaska congressman, published Angels Don't Play This HAARP, in which he argues that the military plans to use HAARP to manipulate weather patterns and jam the thoughts of millions of people worldwide, among other claims. All this is putting the project's backers on the defensive. While HAARP project director John Heckscher of the Phillips Laboratory in Boston vows that anti-HAARP activists won't stop the project, he allows that they may succeed in delaying its launch, which is scheduled for 2002.

The Gakona facility originally was established by the U.S. Air Force and the Office of Naval Research as an over-the-horizon radar station, part of the Distant Early Warning System for monitoring Soviet aircraft and missiles. When the Cold War ended, the military scrubbed the radar facility, and with the help of Alaska Senator Ted Stevens, chair of the defense appropriations subcommittee, won the federal funds to begin transforming it into an ionospheric lab.

For U.S. plasma physicists, HAARP is a dream come true. Re-creating ionospheric processes in earthbound laboratories is notoriously difficult. Space has no walls, so as soon as charged gases like those in the ionosphere hit a barrier of some kind, the experiment is effectively over, says Cornell University physicist Michael Kelley, chair of the U.S. Ionospheric Interactions Program steering committee. With its focused beam of high-frequency radio waves, HAARP will excite, or "heat," ions and electrons in the ionosphere, much as the sun does. This will allow scientists to observe in a controlled fashion the complex physical processes that occur naturally. Says Kelley, "Very little space science is manipulative. But the normal scientific method is done by cause and effect; this is our tiny tool to help us do that."

The DOD is equally enthusiastic about the project. The ionosphere reflects radio signals and so provides long-range capabilities for military and civilian communications, navigation, surveillance, and remote-sensing systems. But it also distorts and absorbs the signals. Researchers hope that a better understanding of how the sun interacts with the ionosphere will enable them to develop and enhance these crucial space-based systems.

One application the military is particularly interested in exploring with HAARP is the use of Extremely Low Frequency ( ELF) signals for communicating with submerged submarines. Unlike conventional radio waves, ELF signals can penetrate several kilometers below the ocean surface, allowing subs to receive transmissions without risking detection by coming close to the surface. The military already operates an ELF system with two transmitting antennas, one in Michigan and one in Wisconsin. Unlike these facilities, HAARP would not transmit such signals from the ground. Instead, its many powerful antennas would be able to generate ELFs at an altitude of about 80 kilometers. By tapping into the supercharged portion of the ionosphere over the Arctic, called the electrojet, HAARP scientists are hoping to create a virtual transmitter in space that would allow the Navy to communicate with subs worldwide.

But anti-HAARP skeptics claim that the military has even bigger plans for the project. HAARP's somewhat menacing appearance surely hasn't helped resolve its public-relations problem: 48 21-meter radio antennas now loom behind the Gakona facility's barbed-wire fence, and, when completed, the 9-hectare antenna farm will be stuffed with 180 towers. In his book, Begich, who is the informal spokesperson for the loosely knit anti-HAARP coalition, writes that all this technology is part of a DOD plan to raise a Star wars-type missile shield and devise technologies for jamming global communications worldwide. Physical chemist Richard Williams, a consultant for the David Sarnoff Institute in Princeton, New Jersey, further argues that HAARP could irreparably damage the ionosphere: "This is basically atmospheric physicists playing with the ionosphere, which is vital to the life of this planet." Also, he asserts that "this whole concept of electromagnetic warfare" needs to be "publicly debated."

The HAARP critics have asked for a public conference to discuss their concerns and hear more details about the science from the military. They have written hundreds of letters to Alaska's congressional delegation and have succeeded in getting the attention of several state legislators, who held legislative hearings on the subject last year.

Many scientists who work on HAARP are dumbfounded by the charges. "We are just improving on technology that already exists," says Heckscher. He points out that the Max Planck Institute has been running a big ionospheric "heater" in Tromsø, Norway, since the late 1970s with no lasting effects. U.S. scientists don't have good access because the United States did not join the Norwegian consortium. Also, the United States already operates two other small ionospheric heaters, at the Arecibo Observatory in Puerto Rico and at HIPAS, operated by the University of California, Los Angeles, 325 kilometers down the road from HAARP in Chena Hot Springs, Alaska. The HAARP facility, with three times the power of current facilities and a vastly more flexible radio beam, will be the world's largest ionospheric heater.

Still, it will not be nearly powerful enough to change Earth's climate, say scientists. "They are talking science fiction," says Syun-Ichi Akasofu, who heads the University of Alaska's Geophysical Institute in Fairbanks, the lead institution in a university consortium that made recommendations to the military about how HAARP could be used for basic research. HAARP won't be doing anything to the ionosphere that doesn't happen naturally as a result of solar radiation, says Akasofu. Indeed, the beam's effect on the ionosphere is minuscule compared to normal day-night variations. "To do what [the critics] are talking about, we would have to flatten the entire state of Alaska and put up millions of antennas, and even then, I am not sure it would work."

Weather is generated, not in the ionosphere, hut in the dense atmosphere close to Earth, points out University of Tulsa provost and plasma physicist Lewis Duncan, former chair of the U.S. Ionospheric Steering Committee. Because HAARP's radio beam only excites and heats ionized particles, it will slip right through the lower atmosphere, which is composed primarily of neutral gases. "If climate modifications were even conceivable using this technology, you can bet there would be a lot more funding available for it," he jokes.

Critics also charge that the HAARP project is suspect because--having been funded directly by Congress--it has never undergone a formal, scientific review process. Mitch Rose, Stevens's chief of staff, counters that the critics shouldn't look a gift horse in the mouth. "Let's face it, the DOD has a good budget, and they have the resources to support this type of program.... We are hoping that HAARP will be a harbinger for a different Silicon Valley for Alaska."

Whatever economic benefits HAARP bestows, they won't be felt for a few more years: While Congress has budgeted $15 million in the FY '97 budget for HAARP, Heckscher says that all the legislative hearings, requests for information, and piles of letters have slowed the project down. Still, the University of Alaska's Kan hopes the controversy will prove to be a boon for physics: "I see this as a tremendous opportunity to educate the public about physics and auroral studies."

[Photo: see HAARP Website] Antenna farm. Gakona will sprout 180 transmitters. Map of Alaska.

Lisa Busch

Lisa Busch is a science writer in Sitka, Alaska.