Colorful auroras seen in May 2024 were caused by mass ejections from the Sun; not by HAARP experiments

CLAIM
May 2024 auroras were caused by experiments from High-frequency Active Auroral Research Program (HAARP) experiments
DETAILS
The origin of auroras in Earth’s atmosphere is well-studied and occur as solar winds and ejections of magnetized plasma from the Sun approach Earth and interact with our planet’s magnetic field. HAARP is incapable of producing the auroras that were observed because their power output is orders of magnitude less than would be necessary to do so.
KEY TAKE AWAY
The High-frequency Active Auroral Research Program (HAARP) is a research facility that uses a high-power, high-frequency transmitter to study the physical properties and behavior of the highest point of the atmosphere, the ionosphere. Radio transmissions from HAARP only cause small effects in the ionosphere that last for a brief span of a few seconds. HAARP is incapable of causing the magnitude of aurora effects witnessed in May 2024; evidence shows these effects were caused by mass ejections of magnetized plasma from the Sun.

REVIEW

CLAIM: The vivid lights seen around the world on May 10 2024 were artificial aurora effects caused by High-frequency Active Auroral Research Program (HAARP) experiments, not by a geomagnetic storm.

On 10 May 2024, solar eruptions caused a several-day geomagnetic storm on Earth, causing a vivid display of colors, called auroras, which were witnessed in skies around the globe. This natural event coincided with experiments by the High-frequency Active Auroral Research Program (HAARP), which triggered dozens of social media users to claim that these experiments were responsible for the widely-seen aurora effects. As of the publication date for this article, one YouTube video gathered over 270K views after discussing some of the claims people are making about HAARP’s connection to the recent auroras. We will investigate the main claims below and explore the scientific evidence for the cause of the recent auroras.

 

Colorful auroras appeared across the globe in May 2024 due to a  solar storm that scientists warned about

Although the recent auroras were exceptionally wide-spread and a surprise to most who saw them, their presence was not a mystery to scientists. Scientists have long known that certain types of solar activity lead to aurora effects in Earth’s atmosphere. The most well-known example of this phenomenon is the aurora borealis (i.e., the northern lights), which have been documented for centuries – long before the establishment of HAARP in 1990. Auroras are caused by the interactions between solar winds and Earth’s magnetic field (i.e., magnetosphere) which protects our planet, as shown in Figure 1 below. These solar winds contain a plasma of electrically charged particles which interact with Earth’s magnetic field, accelerating electrons along its magnetic field lines (blue lines in Figure 1) which then bombard and energize molecules in Earth’s atmosphere causing them to glow and form auroras.

Figure 1 – Simplified illustration (not to scale) showing solar wind (orange arrows) interacting with Earth’s magnetic field (blue) which causes the aurora borealis in a region called the ‘auroral oval (green). Source: Tromsø Geophysical Observatory (TGO)

 

The northern lights are a more regular occurrence in the auroral oval due to the interactions described above and geometry shown in Figure 2 below; however, the Sun occasionally has increased activity (e.g., solar storms) which leads to greater visibility of auroras from other places on Earth, as witnessed on 10-11 May 2024.

Figure 2 – Location of the auroral oval (green) where the northern lights are commonly seen. This region can vary with changes in solar winds, which accelerate electrons along the magnetic field lines (thin lines shown above) and down to Earth’s atmosphere where they excite molecules which glow and form auroras. Source: NOAA

 

On 9 May 2024, the National Oceanic And Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) issued a Severe (G4) Geomagnetic Storm Watch due to a series of solar flares and coronal mass ejections (CMEs) that began the day prior. One of the solar flares from sunspot ‘AR3664’ was observed by NOAA’s GOES-16 satellite on 9 May 2024, as shown around the four second mark in the video below:

 

 

NOAA later shared an X/Twitter post explaining that the geomagnetic storms reached level G5 – the highest in the scale from 1-5 – which last occurred in 2003. This solar storm originated from a cluster of sunspots that is roughly 17 times the diameter of Earth, which spewed magnetized plasma that hurtled towards Earth at ~1,800 kilometers/second. Once reaching Earth’s magnetic field, this resulted in an aurora that could be seen from areas on Earth where it is normally not possible. Based on this evidence, we can confidently conclude that a solar storm was responsible for the auroras witnessed around the world on 10-11 May 2024. However, as we noted earlier, dozens of social media posts claimed that HAARP experiments were the cause of these auroras. Examples of these posts can be found in the following links: X/Twitter post, TikTok video 1, TikTok video 2, Facebook post.

Below we will explore what HAARP is and the experiments they were conducting.

 

No evidence that the HAARP experiments were related to the auroras observed in May 2024

A press release from HAARP was posted on 13 May 2024, explaining that “the HAARP scientific experiments were in no way linked to the solar storm or high auroral activity seen around the globe”. But what is HAARP and what experiments did they recently conduct?

HAARP is a research facility operated by the University of Alaska Fairbanks[1]. It transmits high-frequency radio signals into the highest point of the atmosphere, the ionosphere, using 360 radio transmitters and 180 antennas. The facility covers about 14 hectares (0.14 kilometers squared) near the town of Gakona, Alaska, which is about 250 kilometers northeast of Anchorage, Alaska’s largest city. The radio signals are partially absorbed between 100 kilometers and 350 kilometers in altitude, accelerating electrons in the ionosphere and briefly “heating” it up[2]. By analyzing how radio waves interact with electrons in the ionosphere[3,4], researchers at HAARP are able to study phenomena, such as the effects of the aurora borealis (i.e., northern lights) on radio systems and aircraft communications at high altitudes.

 

The experiments that HAARP conducted between 8-10 May 2024 “supported research proposals from the University of Alaska Fairbanks to study mechanisms for the detection of orbiting space debris”. They explain that these experiments were conducted to help improve collision detection for satellites, and were scheduled roughly a month and a half ahead of the geomagnetic storm. As they HAARP explains in their press release, “the timing was purely coincidental; geomagnetic storms are unpredictable, with lead times before a solar event is detected from Earth measured in minutes, not months”.

 

Beyond the fact that the HAARP experiments were unrelated to the observed auroras in May 2024, the HAARP instruments are also incapable of producing those effects. The maximum radiative power of HAARP’s antennas is 3.6 megawatts[2], whereas a strong geomagnetic storm – such as that observed on 10-11 May 2024 – inputs upwards of 100 gigawatts of power into Earth’s magnetosphere and ionosphere (i.e., the study area of HAARP experiments). This means that the power received from the geomagnetic storm was 10,000 times greater than HAARP’s maximum power output. In a similar explanation from HAARP, they note: “interestingly, coronal mass ejections, like the one associated with the recent geomagnetic storm, typically release more than 10^24 Joules of energy. By comparison, the high- frequency (HF) transmitter at HAARP is only a ~3 megawatt (MW) transmitter; it would take HAARP over 10 billion years to produce enough energy to affect this naturally occurring phenomenon”. Science Feedback has covered the limitations of HAARP’s capabilities in previous claim reviews – an example is linked here

 

Conclusion

In summary, there is conclusive evidence that the aurora observed around the globe on 10-11 May 2024 was caused by a solar storm that began erupting from the Sun on 8 May 2024. The claims attributing the auroras to HAARP experiments that coincided with this event are simply incorrect. As explained above, not only is HAARP incapable of producing the observed auroras from its limited power output, but the experiments – which were scheduled over a month in advance – were conducted to study space debris, unrelated to auroral effects.

 

REFERENCES

 

Published on: 16 May 2024 | Editor:

Climate Feedback is a non-partisan, non-profit organization dedicated to science education. Our reviews are crowdsourced directly from a community of scientists with relevant expertise. We strive to explain whether and why information is or is not consistent with the science and to help readers know which news to trust.
Please get in touch if you have any comment or think there is an important claim or article that would need to be reviewed.

ifcn-fact-checkers-code-of-principles-signatory