NEAR GAKONA, ALASKA — In this wild place where dump truck drivers once dumped load after load of gravel onto moss to make roads and construction pads, scientists opened an iron gate on a Saturday after recent noon.
They invited conspiracy theorists, reality TV hosts and salmon fishermen from Chistochina to the grounds of a mysterious antenna field. It’s a facility that some say has pushed the caribou back. Rumor has it that it triggers earthquakes and keeps human souls in a kind of Norse purgatory.
Scientists were somewhat to blame for all the weirdness claims here between the Copper and Gakona rivers. First, they used an acronym to name it – HAARP, which stands for High-frequency Active Auroral Research Program.
This acronym added to the mystery of a field of antennae that can heat a region of space high above our heads with radio waves powered by five powerful diesel generators, each the size of a fuel tanker. .
The science of studying an area we can’t see by disrupting it with enough electricity to power a small town – located in a place where wolves and bears graze quietly on its few gravel roads – is difficult. to understand.
However, a few people really understand HAARP. They were standing on these smoothed piles of gravel that Saturday when the ominous metal door opened.
My former boss Sue Mitchell, now retired, initiated this “open house” a few years ago. She was there again in 2022, greeting people at the first table in the first building visitors entered. I asked him why.
“That way we could be as transparent and open as possible,” she said. “Open the door and show people what’s here.”
While working at the Geophysical Institute at the University of Alaska Fairbanks, Mitchell took the considerable hit of answering phone calls regarding the HAARP facility. She had no answers for people who were sure that the antenna field was somehow controlling their minds.
“My hope has been to show people what’s really going on, the facts will speak for themselves,” she said. “It doesn’t always work. People sometimes make decisions emotionally, not always based on facts.
It doesn’t help when the facts are so hard to figure out. Here is a test:
The antenna field at this 5,408-acre site far from any town in Alaska was first a piece of black spruce forest and wetlands that US Air Force officials purchased from the company native Ahtna in 1989. The idea was to use the location to build an over-the-horizon radar that would allow technicians to observe bombers or missiles that might be heading towards America over the pole.
Due to the end of the Cold War, this radar was never built. Instead, Air Force workers installed a field of 18 antennas that broadcast high-frequency waves to the ionosphere, the region of space that is home to the aurora borealis.
The antenna field over the years has grown to 180, each fed by two transmitters. A researcher called it the world’s largest amateur radio.
HAARP is a group of high frequency radio transmitters, in the amateur radio band, powered by five diesel generators – four from tugs and one from a locomotive. When activated, the emitters send a focused beam of radio wave energy into the ionosphere, 50-600 miles above.
Since opening in 2003 with funding that the late Senator Ted Stevens helped secure, HAARP has hosted many scientists doing basic science on the auroral zone.
Others used it to do applied research for the military. In one such study, the researchers used the antenna array to heat a portion of the ionosphere which in turn acted as a low-frequency antenna that could send an ocean-penetrating signal to a submarine. This ping could tell a submarine captain to surface in order to receive conventional radio communications.
This place nearly fell to the bulldozers in 2012, when the Department of Defense wanted to cut the cost of running the facility, which includes around $250,000 a year just to heat the dozens of emitting buildings in the winter.
Around this time, Bob McCoy, director of the Geophysical Institute and a space physicist himself, lobbied for the institute to take over the site. Scientists rallied around him, as did the then university president.
At the same time, National Research Council leaders held a workshop on HAARP. They wrote a 70-page report on the science that could be accomplished with the facility.
“Even though it’s esoteric and hard to understand, it’s the best,” McCoy said in 2015.
The university administration gave McCoy a loan to keep HAARP running. He bet he could repay it by attracting the attention of scientists. They would use the transmitters and pay for them with grants from funding agencies. That bet is paying off, with a new 5-year grant from the National Science Foundation.
McCoy was there at the entrance to HAARP that Saturday, answering questions from people like Michael Lewis from Anchorage.
Lewis, who wore a baseball cap that he had covered with foil, apparently for fun, said he had always wanted to see the installation. McCoy posed for a photo with him.
Visitors were permitted on the entire grounds of the facility during the open house. The swampy ground limited them to driving and walking on the few miles of road and gravel, including the dormant transmitter array.
Scientists and engineers were posted at strategic points to explain what the complicated equipment did when turned on. A few guests were amateur radio enthusiasts, but most seemed to be just curious people.
After the five o’clock open doors ended, the black door closed behind the last car. Then HAARP went back to what it is most of the time: a quiet pile of gravel with antennae. There, songbirds on their way south flitted through the spruces and on the ground beneath the antenna masts.