Answer Man

Answer Man: Don’t worry about radio waves from Alaska

Hall-Bopp Comet brought out lots of unscientific Planet X claptrap in 2003.
Hall-Bopp Comet brought out lots of unscientific Planet X claptrap in 2003. Tribune News Service

Q: During one of our spells of wacky weather, my son said he had seen a documentary by Jesse Ventura about machinery in Alaska that shoots radio waves into the troposphere to control the weather. It was intended as a weapon against the Russians during the Cold War. Is there any truth to this existing?

M.W., of Belleville

A: If you believe that claptrap, I have a Planet X I’d like to sell you cheap.

What? You didn’t hear that piece of twaddle? Well, hold on to your tinfoil hat while I tell you what an acquaintance of mine insisted for months was true: In 1995, a Wisconsin woman named Nancy Lieder launched a website on which she told of how space aliens known as Zetas had implanted a communications device in her brain when she was a child.

So while the world was getting ready for a visit by the Hale-Bopp comet, Lieder revealed the “truth” that astronomers were too afraid to tell us: It wasn’t a comet at all. It was an invisible planet four times the size of earth that would destroy us on May 27, 2003. About a week before, Lieder even went on Los Angeles radio and advised listeners to euthanize their pets to spare their suffering.

You’d think people would have dismissed her as the bizzaro she was, but a sect as far away as Japan blocked roads and rivers with white cloth to protect itself against the electromagnetic waves that would result when Planet X stopped the Earth from spinning for 5.9 days.

Real scientists said they were deluged with emails, some claiming the scientists were hiding the truth while others asked whether they should commit suicide. We’re still here, but that didn’t stop Lieder and others from continuing to push the date back as usually happens with such end-of-the-world rubbish.

“Planetary scientists are being driven to distraction by Nibiru (the name some gave to Planet X),” Dutch science writer Govert Schilling said at the height of the cockamamie panic. “You devote so much time, energy and creativity to fascinating scientific research ... and all the public at large is concerned about is some crackpot theory about clay tablets, god-astronauts and a planet that doesn’t exist.”

Which, of course, is the perfect lead-in for the answer to your question. Yes, there has been research going on in Alaska that involves shooting radio waves into the sky. But rather than exciting people about the actual science, crackpots turned it into the “Moby Dick of conspiracy theories,” as Sharon Weinberger, an expert on defense and security issues, once described it.

Here, then, are the facts from those I consider legitimate scientists: What Ventura was referring to was a very real research project called HAARP — the High Frequency Active Auroral Research Program.

Approved in 1990, it was designed to enhance our knowledge of the ionosphere in the hopes of improving communication and navigation systems for both military and civilian use. Construction began in 1993 on a 35-acre site about 180 miles northeast of Anchorage. Completed in 2007, the facility consists of an observatory and an array of 180 72-foot-tall antennas capable of shooting a concentrated beam of high-frequency radio waves into the atmosphere. The estimated $250 million in funding was shared by the Air Force, the Navy, and the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency.

Here’s why it’s important: The ionosphere, which stretches from about 30 to 250 miles above the earth’s surface, is critical to the transmission and reflection of radio waves, yet it can be at the mercy of the unpredictable nature of radiation from the sun. With a deeper understanding of how the ionosphere affects radio signals, scientists hoped they could develop even more reliable GPS devices, guided-missile systems — even better communication with submarines.

But as you might imagine, as soon as you start talking about shooting off beams of radio waves into the sky at a remote site, those looking for headlines will start throwing out every sinister motive they can think of — and that’s exactly what happened.

In his book “Angels Don’t Play This HAARP,” Nick Begich Jr. (a son of a U.S. representative and brother of a U.S. senator, no less) claimed HAARP could trigger earthquakes and turn the upper atmosphere into a giant lens that could make the sky appear to burn.

“Governor, this is the death ray,” he once told Ventura. “It can knock airplanes out of the sky. It can control the weather.”

Ventura himself has suggested that the government might use it as a mind-controlling device. Conspiracy theorist Benjamin Fulford says it has caused major earthquakes by heating water in the atmosphere like a microwave. Even a Russian military journal jumped on the bandwagon, saying it had the potential to flip Earth’s magnetic poles.

The allegations are asinine. A few examples:

Power: Some claim HAARP could transmit as much as 4.7 billion watts of power. The actual figure is 3.6 million. While that may sound like a lot (it’s 72 times the power of radio station KMOX), it’s negligible compared to the power of the incoming solar radiation — or even a lightning flash. The antennas were activated only about once a month during research studies. No planes fell from the sky.

Top-secret mission: There was nothing clandestine about HAARP. More than a dozen universities have used the facilities for research. It even held open houses for the public once a year. And, oh, by the way, there are similar programs in Norway and Russia.

Weather control: The frequency of energy transmitted by HAARP cannot be absorbed by the troposphere or stratosphere, only by the ionosophere, which is many miles higher than where weather systems form.

Weapon: Someone might tell Mr. Ventura that the Cold War ended in 1991, long before HAARP came on line.

Earthquakes: There is no known correlation between temperature and earthquakes. Besides, HAARP’s maximum frequency is 10 megahertz while your microwave oven requires 2.5 gigahertz, or 250 times greater.

“A note to conspiracy theorists: At least pretend to know what you’re talking about,” as Brian Dunning wrote on Skeptoid.com.

I could go on, but why bother? Hopefully, rational people will see the claims for the nonsense they are while true believers likely will never be convinced otherwise.

But at least nobody can blame the recent flooding on HAARP. The program was shut down in late 2014, and the facility was transferred last August to the University of Alaska, which now awaits customers to use it.

Today’s trivia

Who was the only major organized crime figure to be executed?

Answer to Friday’s trivia: On March 30, 1858, correcting written mistakes became far more convenient when Hyman Lipman registered the first patent for a pencil with an attached eraser. Four years later, he sold the patent to Joseph Reckendorfer for $100,000, but when Reckendorfer later sued the Faber pencil company for patent infringement, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the patent was invalid because the invention combined two already known things with no new use.

Roger Schlueter: 618-239-2465, @RogerAnswer

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