Conspiracy Nuts Are Spreading a Bizarre Theory About Those Epic Auroras

Conspiracy theorists on social media have been busy at work peddling their latest conclusion: The magnificent auroras seen over swaths of four different continents over the weekend were caused by a University of Alaska program that studies the ionosphere. Which, of course, is pure nonsense.

This claim has been making the rounds on social media, after a geomagnetic storm caused brilliant lights in the night sky this past weekend—lights that appeared in places where auroras don’t often shine. Auroras occur when particles from the Sun collide with particles in Earth’s ionosphere, the boundary between our planet’s lower atmosphere and space. The solar storm was caused by activity on the surface of the Sun, as our star approaches the maximum of its 11-year solar cycle. In fact, this weekend’s storm was the most intense since 2003, reaching G5 (extreme) conditions Saturday night, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

Typically, these aurora happen towards Earth’s poles, along the planet’s magnetic field. But the extremeness of the storm meant that auroras were seen everywhere from Seattle to Florida in the United States, but also across Canada, Europe, and in parts of Africa, Asia, and Australia.

Aurora over the Great Wall of China on May 12 (because China is deeefinitely working with the University of Alaska.)
Photo: Yang Dong/VCG (Getty Images)

During a NOAA press conference held last week, scientists and forecasters from the Space Weather Prediction Center told reporters they had warned operators of critical infrastructure to prepare for the storm, which can disrupt everything from transformers to GPS navigation systems. The forecasters also gave details on the superlative nature of the storm and what to expect, including auroras farther south than the Northern Lights typically appear.

Related article: Not Just Auroras: Here’s the Tech That Got Hit by This Weekend’s Solar Storm

Conspiracy theorists online are suggesting that the auroras were actually caused by the High-frequency Active Auroral Research Program (HAARP), an experiment for studying the ionosphere. As it just so happens, the University of Alaska announced on May 2 that HAARP testing would take place from May 8 to May 10, a fact that theorists interpret as meaning the experiment caused the auroras.

Sadly, the University has had to respond to these claims. “We have been responding to many inquiries from the media and the public,” Jessica Matthews, HAARP director, said in a press release. “The HAARP scientific experiments were in no way linked to the solar storm or high auroral activity seen around the globe.”

Mentions of HAARP on X, formerly known as Twitter, are typically accompanied by unfounded references to supposed “weather weapons,” such as chemtrails and government-made tornadoes and whirlpools. A surprising number of the non-U.S.-based social media posters focused on Brazil, implicating HAARP as a cause of the recent devastating floods in the country. One X user in Essex complained that chemtrails and HAARP were at it again, leaving a thick coating of greenish dust on her garden table. (Someone commented: “Deb’s [sic], that’s Springtime in England.”)

The ionosphere stretches from about 50 miles to 400 miles (80 to 644 kilometers) above Earth’s surface, far above where Earth’s weather occurs. Despite this disconnect, conspiracy theorists are saying that HAARP is responsible for everything from the upper atmosphere to weather on the ground. But there may be a good reason for this conspiratorial proclivity; a 2023 study by the American Psychological Association found that conspiracy theorists are “often driven by a need to understand their environment, a desire for superiority, and certain personality traits such as paranoia and egocentrism,” as Neuroscience News reported.

HAARP uses a suite of instruments to understand the ionosphere, but conspiracy theorists are most interested in its Ionospheric Research Instrument, which according to the University of Alaska at Fairbanks, “can be used to temporarily excite a limited area of the ionosphere for scientific study.” That’s right—scientists actually can create little auroras as they study the ionosphere. But that’s where similarities cease; HAARP isn’t powerful enough to create auroras like those that occur naturally. Honestly, if humans could manufacture light shows as spectacular as those seen this weekend (by everyone but me, if I am to trust social media), someone probably would’ve monetized it by now.

However, the more I write about conspiracy theorists’ beliefs about HAARP, the more I understand their perspective. If it’s raining out, that’s evidence the government is once again trying to keep me from going into the office. If it’s sunny out, that con—erm, chemtrail—is a sign that the government is once again trying to poison me, and keep me from doing my meaningful work. I will not be silenced!

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