A photographer takes pictures of the Aurora Australis, also known as the Southern Lights, glow on the horizon over waters of Lake Ellesmere on the outskirts of Christchurch, New Zealand, on May 11, 2024 ( AFP / Sanka Vidanagama)

Posts falsely blame HAARP research project for atmospheric auroras

  • Published on May 15, 2024 at 18:18
  • Updated on May 31, 2024 at 18:19
  • 5 min read
A powerful solar storm triggered spectacular atmospheric auroras seen around the world in May 2024, but widely shared social media posts claim the light displays resulted from a research project formerly operated by the US military. This is false; the geomagnetic phenomenon was well documented, and scientists say the facility known as HAARP is incapable of producing anything of this magnitude.

"HAARP CREATED THE AURORAS! They may have been beautiful but they were not natural," said an Instagram user on May 11, 2024, referencing the High-frequency Active Auroral Research Program, which studies the ionosphere and is the target of numerous conspiracy theories.

"Did y'all enjoy the fabricated light show?" said a Facebook post, also on May 11, with thousands of interactions. "Stop giving them so much credit.  This was NOT the Aurora Borealis."

Similar claims were shared on TikTok, where one clip garnered more than one million views, as well as on Threads, X, Bitchute, in online articles and in posts in French, Spanish and German.

(Rob Lever)
(Rob Lever)

Spectacular auroras dominated the sky in many parts of the world May 10 and 11, resulting from the most powerful solar storm in more than two decades. The first of several coronal mass ejections (CMEs) -- expulsions of plasma and magnetic fields from the Sun -- came just after 1600 GMT Friday, according to the US-based National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).

Fluctuating magnetic fields associated with geomagnetic storms induce currents in long wires, including power lines, which can potentially lead to blackouts. Long pipelines can also become electrified, leading to engineering problems.

But the phenomenon seen worldwide is unrelated to HAARP, a former US military initiative now housed at the University of Alaska Fairbanks that conducts research on the ionosphere using a high-energy transmitter. 

While HAARP research can lead to "weak luminous aurora-like glows," according to its website, its impact cannot extend beyond a small area, scientists say (archived here).

Dennis Papadopoulos, a professor specializing in plasma physics at the University of Maryland (archived here) and one of the scientists involved in conceiving HAARP, said the claims are unfounded.

"While we have in the past generated artificial aurora it is confined within the area around Gakona and orders of magnitude weaker than what is observed," he said in a May 13 email. "HAARP cannot drive global effects."

Experiment fuels claims

Fueling the claims was the news that HAARP conducted research May 8-10 (archived here), and several posts used a genuine notice of the project as purported evidence that the auroras were manipulated.

But a spokesperson for the Alaska-based facility told AFP on May 13 the experiment "studied mechanisms for the detection of orbiting space debris," not anything related to the geomagnetic storm.

The university issued a statement later the same day with additional details on its research from Jessica Matthews, HAARP director (archived here).

"We have been responding to many enquiries from the media and the public," Matthews said in the statement. "The HAARP scientific experiments were in no way linked to the solar storm or high auroral activity seen around the globe."

The Northern lights or aurora borealis illuminate the night sky in Grand Bend, Ontario, Canada during a geomagnetic storm on May 12, 2024 (AFP / Geoff Robins)

Jeffrey Hughes, a professor of astronomy specializing in space physics at Boston University (archived here), agreed, telling AFP in a May 13 email that the radio waves emitted by HAARP "can modify the local ionosphere (over a region perhaps 100 miles wide) but not any further away. It could not cause airglow away from Alaska."

Stanford University professor emeritus Umran Inan (archived here), who specializes in the ionosphere, said the claims make little sense.

"The electromagnetic power delivered to the ionosphere by the HAARP facility is minuscule compared to that delivered by intense lightning flashes, which occur approximately 50 to 60 times a second on our planet," he said in an email. "Accordingly, any suggestion that a global event like the one that occurred is related to HAARP is truly ludicrous."

Tuija Pulkkinen, chair of climate and space sciences and engineering at the University of Michigan (archived here), similarly dismissed the claims.

"HAARP is a radio transmitter, which sends signals to the upper atmosphere creating electron heating. It has the ability to create artificial airglow that could resemble auroras, but only in a very local region," she told AFP. "The solar storm occurrence was verified by solar observations (sunspot activity, strong flare activity, solar energetic particles, coronal mass ejections seen leaving the solar corona), solar wind observations 1.5 million km from the Earth towards the Sun."

Plasma physicist Jan Egedal of the University of Wisconsin (archived here) called the claims "nonsense" and added: "The HAARP facility has nowhere near the energy output required to create the aurora borealis."

HAARP has also been falsely blamed for weather manipulation, earthquakes, and other phenomena.

Paragraph 11 was updated to add an archived link.
May 31, 2024 Paragraph 11 was updated to add an archived link.

Is there content that you would like AFP to fact-check? Get in touch.

Contact us