'Geostorm' Hurricane Conspiracy Theory Claims the U.S. Government Controls Weather

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Hurricane Harvey, which was not controlled by the U.S. government, is photographed aboard the International Space Station. NASA via Getty Images

What caused a devastating back-to-back string of hurricanes and natural disasters across the United States? If you ask conspiracy theorists on the internet, some will point you to a former U.S. military ionospheric research facility in Alaska.

The problem with such a far-fetched theory is that the Fairbanks research facility is now operated by the University of Alaska, and it cannot physically accomplish what conspiracy theorists accuse.

Of course, that does not keep individuals from claiming the High-Frequency Active Auroral Research Program (HAARP) manipulates the environment, changes weather patterns and ultimately brings hurricanes that kill and injure hundreds of people.

After hurricanes Irma and Harvey devastated portions of the U.S.—including Hurricane Maria's calamitous damages in Puerto Rico—employees of the research institute were blamed for the weather due to conspiracy theories on the internet.

Sue Mitchell, the facility's public information officer, received 46 missed calls after a weekend of particularly bad weather.

"To be frank, HAARP cannot do the things the conspiracy theorists accuse it of being able to do," Mitchell tells Newsweek. "It's not capable of causing hurricanes or reading minds or making caribou walk backward or any of the millions of things it's been accused of. It's a completely harmless research facility."

Weather-related conspiracy theories may be having a bit of a moment—a movie called Geostorm features weather-controlling satellites determined to destroy the planet. The National Weather Service even braced for an influx of weather-related questions after its release, but the film faced less-than-stellar opening reviews. The agency still reminded people it does not engage in weather modification either.

HAARP is a former military facility capable of sending low-frequency waves into the ionosphere, which is a region of Earth's upper atmosphere. Bob McCoy, Geophysical Institute director for the University of Alaska, said the transmitter served as a powerful Department of Defense radio until the military decided they no longer needed it and gifted it to the University of Alaska.

"Be careful what you ask for," McCoy quipped to Newsweek.

The institute now operates HAARP as the world’s "most capable high-power, high-frequency transmitter" to study the ionosphere. The facility is quiet for most of the year but opens submission for science proposals a few times a year. 

HAARP has long-fueled conspiracy theories, ever since conspiracy theorist Nick Begich wrote a book about the government's plan to control the environment. The research institute said they mostly ignore Begich's claims, but noted that he lives four hours away from the institute and should just attend an open house. In August, the research facility hosted paranormal investigators who "asked questions, left happy" and even featured them in a newsletter.

On a few occasions, people hear Mitchell out, but that is not the norm. The research institute has faced serious threats from individuals promising to destroy the facility—some of whom insist they are on a mission to "free the souls" of people trapped at the institute.

"Most people, they don't actually want to hear my explanation," Mitchell said. "They just want to vent, but when I talk someone who's willing to discuss it I explain that unfortunately, we cannot control the weather, except through climate change."