Driving along a stretch of road seemingly trafficked by more moose than cars, Dr. Christopher Fallen flipped his turn signal and headed down a gravelly path that leads to an unmanned gate attached to a barbed wire fence that disappears in each direction into a dense, marshy forest.
The atmospheric scientist and University of Alaska Fairbanks professor spent most of a Sunday in June cramped inside a car making the roundtrip drive from Fairbanks for what he believed would be his last look at the High Frequency Active Auroral Research Program, or HAARP.
It was the final day of the final scheduled research campaign at the sprawling facility that uses 180 huge antennas to rapidly heat specks of the ionosphere, giving scientists a unique platform to study the little-understood upper atmosphere, laying the foundation for breakthroughs in telecommunications and all types of other fields.
By the end of the week, the Air Force planned to start scrapping the array of 66-foot antennas, the field of riometers, the telescopes, the all-sky cameras and the five diesel locomotive engines that have kept the place chugging along for more than a decade: everything must go.
But that will not happen, not if Fallen has anything to do with it.
Wearing a gray tweed blazer and a shirt with a picture of a robot, Fallen uncrinkled an envelope with a label scribbled in pencil: “The Keys to…HAARP.” He pulled a keycard from the envelope, slapped it against the sensor outside the unmanned gate and the car unceremoniously rolled through – not so much as a glance at the car with a conspicuous television crew.
As we drove past the buzzing, chirping antennas, Fallen offered his analysis of what has left the facility on the chopping block and turned him into something of a mad scientist. “If it could generate earthquakes, as some people claim, I don't think there would be any issue with funding,” he said.
A view of HAARP's array of 66-foot antennas through a safety fence that surrounds an area the size of several football fields. (Kuba Wuls KTUU-TV)
THE MOST POWERFUL WEAPON EVER?
Jesse Ventura, the former professional wrestler who achieved even greater fame as governor of Minnesota, was working on an episode of the television show Conspiracy Theory when he and a crew landed a helicopter next to HAARP's gate.
Ventura resorted to visiting the facility after he tried three times to arrange a tour with the Air Force. On the ground, he was told by a civilian contractor that media must have permission or wait two years for a public open house.
“When I get denied something I get the opposite of getting intimidated,” Ventura told the contractor. “I get angry.”
While the nationally televised show focused on conspiracies rather than the science of the ionosphere – HAARP was described as potentially “the most dangerous weapon the world has ever seen” – Ventura got almost nothing from the military or the scientific community to serve as a counter to conspiracy theorists' claims.
And some of the claims are extraordinary: HAARP has been called more powerful than the 50-megaton Soviet Tsar Bomba and everything else ever, some believe it caused the devastating 2004 Indonesia tsunami that killed hundreds of thousands, Hurricane Katrina in 2006 and all types of other extreme weather events, and of course there is the possibility of widespread mind control.
In the absence of open access to objective information, Ventura is hardly the only person left outside looking in.
"It invites the imagination to come up with reasons why this type of machine might exist," Fallen said. "So whenever we see something unexplained in the atmosphere, so-called chem trails, if the weather behaves strangely, well, blame it on HAARP."
"The community's been a little closed," said Dr. Robert McCoy, director of the Geophysical Institute at UAF. "They haven't done the best job they could at communicating what they're doing and why."
I first requested access to HAARP in June 2011 while working for Alaska Dispatch, and minus the trip to Gakona, I had a similar outcome to Ventura.
After talking to a brigade of military spokespersons, I was eventually pointed to the Air Force Research Laboratory public affairs office at Kirtland Air Force Base in New Mexico. Kirtland declined to arrange an interview and told me to wait for the next open house.
I gave up hope of getting an inside look then and settled on a public records request filed under the Freedom of Information Act: specifically looking for Congressional and Defense appropriations that went to HAARP, reports on research projects completed at the facility, a description of the ongoing goals and research, emails by scientists at the facility, and so on. I eventually got a box of papers that may as well have been empty – aside from an account of annual costs. I cobbled together a fact-check of some outlandish conspiracies, moved away from Alaska and forgot the story until I returned to the Last Frontier last summer.
Amid whispers that the facility would close its doors forever, I tried again to get access to HAARP starting Dec. 5, 2013, with the goal of getting a late January tour while passing Gakona on the way to Juneau.
One Kirtland spokesperson pointed me to another Kirtland spokesperson. The second Kirtland spokesperson pointed me to a third Kirtland spokesperson.
On Jan. 14, one of the spokespersons finally spoke: “Please forward me your questions and I will source with our subject matter expert on HAARP,” Carl Grusnick wrote. I responded by explaining, as I had in emails and phone calls, that I wanted to tour the facility so someone could explain the research done at HAARP and the funding struggles. Our conversation continued that day:
GRUSNICK: “Even if access was possible, there would be no way to set up on such a short notice."
ME: “I realize it's difficult to pull something together at the last minute, which is why I first mentioned this request…on Dec. 5.”
GRUSNICK: “Do you have another date in mind at least 30 days out?”
ME: “We can easily make it out to Gakona if we have a couple weeks of advance notice. If you need an exact date, let's try for Friday, Feb. 14.”
My follow-up attempts after that day went nowhere until June 4, 2014, when I wrote asking if I could arrange a tour before the then-imminent closing: “[T]he Air Force use of the facility is being discontinued and we have already ceased operations there. As such, I cannot provide you any access to the facility. As to future use of the structure unfortunately I do not have an update for you,” Grusnick wrote.
Then I contacted a contractor for Ahtna, Inc., which manages HAARP. Sacramento, Calif.-based Ahtna spokesperson Fred Smith responded directly and promptly, though not helpfully: “Ahtna is a contractor for the Air Force and as such is in no position to participate in an interview about the disposition of this site.”
Finally, I contacted Dr. Christopher Fallen after noticing that he spoke to the Anchorage Press. I hoped he could explain the research done at HAARP and help confirm or deny some of the claims that have long clouded the facility. He agreed and went a step further by doing his part to make up for the lack of public outreach by offering a tour using his credentials.
WHAT REALLY GOES ON INSIDE HAARP?
Watch the above clip for an in-depth explanation of the ionosphere, why it matters and how HAARP fits into atmospheric science.
Most people, if they have heard of HAARP, probably remember the 1998 disaster movie "The Core" and its claim the facility could cause targeted earthquakes worldwide. If they know of the ionosphere from somewhere else, they probably recognize it as the distant ring of the atmosphere where Sandra Bullock and George Clooney floated in “Gravity,” or maybe as the stretch of space where auroras occur.
But for atmospheric scientists like Fallen, what makes the ionosphere a fascinating research subject is the abundance of plasma. Plasma is an ionized gas consisting of positive ions and free electrons with no electric charge.
“Plasma physics processes are difficult to replicate in the laboratory, because out in space it’s a very rarefied gas,” Fallen said.
Weather balloons fall short of the ionosphere – which stretches 50 to 400 miles above earth – and satellites launched into the ionosphere can only make a few passes before crashing.
The 66-foot antennas transmit as much 3.6 megawatts of energy to the same exact spot in the ionosphere via radio waves, rapidly heating the area and allowing scientists to study what happens.
The place was dreamed up in the 1980s and, like many other expensive, odd projects strewn across Alaska, became a reality with the help of earmarks from the late U.S. Sen. Ted Stevens. Earmarks and investments by the Department of Defense starting in the 1990s total nearly $300 million of government money spent getting the facility to its current state. From 2005, when construction was completed, and 2011, HAARP cost the military between $6.5 million and $13.4 million to run.
Before his job at the Geophysical Institute, Dr. Robert McCoy spent a career in the Navy that included a stint as a program manager at the Office of Naval Research. With funding exclusively from the Department of Defense, McCoy said research must be applied and moving quickly toward a specific military goal.
“The Navy’s interest was always using the ionosphere like an antenna to generate extremely low frequency waves to communicate with submarines, because those waves would penetrate through the water,” McCoy said.
The idea worked to an extent, though details remain classified, but McCoy said the problem now is that no single federal agency wants to be stuck footing the bill for operations and upkeep of HAARP, particularly as the usefulness of its research to the military wanes.
But he believes that within a year or two that UAF could nail down a plan to take ownership and exact a business model that would draw scientists from an array of agencies and universities, similar to Poker Flat Research Range.
Poker Flat provides a windfall by drawing in scientists from an array of government agencies and universities, and this year alone there are three planned rocket launches that will bring hundreds to the remote community north of Fairbanks in the depths of winter.
Many others are hopeful the plan of transferring ownership to UAF works out.
Sen. Lisa Murkowski ginned up support from dozens of leading atmospheric scientists from around the globe, who signed a letter calling for Congress to figure something out.
But in May DARPA director Dr. Arati Prabhakar told a Congressional panel that it is time for the military to move on: “The P in DARPA is projects,” she said. “We’re not in the business of doing the same thing forever, so very naturally as we conclude that work we’re going to move on to other topics.”
There are two similar facilities – the European Incoherent Scatter Scientific Association in Norway and the Sura Ionospheric Heating Facility in Russia – but the power of each pales in comparison to HAARP, which means the ionospheric research community still has a lot of unqiue research to do in the Last Frontier.
"HAARP is more powerful and more flexible than the rest of them," McCoy said.
There is plenty of basic research to be done at HAARP, McCoy said, and one of the most intriguing applications of ongoing research is the potential that the antennas could create a small artificial layer of the atmosphere that could block disturbances that prevent communication during solar storms.
"Over-the-horizon radar hasn't worked so well in the past because of all the storm activity, but HAARP could have an answer for that," McCoy said.
Dr. Christopher Fallen stands in front of HAARP's antenna array, alongside another UAF employee.(Austin Baird KTUU-TV)
Fallen and McCoy are not alone in the fight to keep HAARP open.
Dozens of scientists signed onto a letter pushing Congress to come up with the money or give the title to someone else.
The cause found a friend in a high place: Sen. Lisa Murkowski, who has lobbied the Department of Defense for months.
Weeks after Fallen opened the gate to HAARP, on July 2, the Air Force announced the Pentagon will delay its plan to demolish HAARP until May 2015.
UAF is still a long way from taking ownership, and the clock is ticking heading into 2015. Secretary of the Air Force Deborah Lee James emphasized in a Wednesday letter to Sen. Lisa Murkowski that the reprieve is temporary.
"The Air Force is willing to slow the closure process and defer irreversible dismantling of the transmitter site until May 2015," James wrote.