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The aurora borealis, also known as the northern lights, is visible over Ann Arbor, Mich., early May, 11, 2024. Brilliant purple, green, yellow and pink hues of the Northern Lights were reported worldwide. (AP) The aurora borealis, also known as the northern lights, is visible over Ann Arbor, Mich., early May, 11, 2024. Brilliant purple, green, yellow and pink hues of the Northern Lights were reported worldwide. (AP)

The aurora borealis, also known as the northern lights, is visible over Ann Arbor, Mich., early May, 11, 2024. Brilliant purple, green, yellow and pink hues of the Northern Lights were reported worldwide. (AP)

Jeff Cercone
By Jeff Cercone May 13, 2024

Geomagnetic storm, not a HAARP experiment, created dazzling, worldwide northern lights display

If Your Time is short

  • A powerful geomagnetic storm hit Earth over several days beginning May 10, causing some disruptions to GPS services and other problems. It also allowed the aurora borealis — known as the northern lights — to be viewed much further south than usual.

  • The timing coincided with research conducted at the High-frequency Active Auroral Research Program. That research involved detecting orbital debris in space and was not related to the geomagnetic storm.

  • HAARP can create an artificial aurora, but not one strong enough to create the display seen worldwide.

A rare, powerful geomagnetic storm over the weekend resulted in the northern lights being visible more widely than normal.

But some social media users said the brilliant light show of green, blue, pink and purple that many people unexpectedly observed was anything but natural. It was the result, they said, of an experiment from the High-frequency Active Auroral Research Program, commonly known as HAARP. 

"Did y’all enjoy the fabricated light show? Stop giving them so much credit. This was NOT the Aurora Borealis," a May 11 Facebook post’s caption said. 

The post, and multiple social media posts like it, said the light display resulted from a HAARP experiment that was scheduled from May 8 to May 10. But spokespeople for HAARP and for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's Space Weather Prediction Center said those claims are baseless.

This post was flagged as part of Meta’s efforts to combat false news and misinformation on its News Feed. (Read more about our partnership with Meta, which owns Facebook and Instagram.)

What is HAARP and what were they researching?

HAARP is a research site in Gakona, Alaska, that the U.S. military created in the 1990s; the University of Alaska, Fairbanks has managed it since 2015. Researchers from around the U.S. use the site to study the ionosphere, an upper layer of Earth’s atmosphere, using a high-frequency radio transmitter. Perhaps because of its government origin, HAARP has been the subject of numerous baseless claims PolitiFact has debunked that say the weather is being manipulated.

HAARP’s scientific campaign earlier this month had nothing to do with the aurora borealis, spokesperson Becky Lindsey said in an email to PolitiFact.

"The experiment studied mechanisms for the detection of orbiting space debris," Lindsey said. 

Orbiting space debris includes human-made objects, such as old spacecraft or satellite parts. There’s about 9,000 metric tons of debris orbiting Earth, NASA said.

"This experiment is in no way linked to the solar storm or high auroral activity seen around the globe." Lindsey said.

The aurora activity seen around the globe was triggered by a strong geomagnetic storm produced by the sun, Lindsey said, and was predicted well in advance by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

HAARP can create an artificial aurora — one was visible up to 300 miles from its Alaska site after a November 2023 experiment. But the energy HAARP creates is not strong enough to produce the optical display seen during a natural aurora, its website says.

About the solar storm and the aurora borealis

The northern lights — also known as the aurora borealis — are caused when electrons and protons collide with gases in Earth’s atmosphere, yielding colorful flashes of light that appear to shimmer in the night sky.

There is a similar phenomenon, the aurora australis, in the Southern Hemisphere.

The northern lights are typically seen closer to the north pole, but were visible as far south as Mexico and Hawaii in recent days, said Bryan Brasher, a project manager at the NOAA's Space Weather Prediction Center.

Brasher also said many people being able to see the lights in unexpected places resulted from a rare, but perfectly natural, event, a powerful geomagnetic storm.

The Prediction Center on May 9 issued a rare G4 geomagnetic storm watch and on May 10 said in an X post that extreme G5 conditions reached Earth, the first time that’s happened since 2003.

Geomagnetic storms are ranked on a scale of 1 to 5, with 5 being the most powerful.

Brasher described the extreme geomagnetic storm as a "series of coronal mass ejections — billions of tons of plasma — traveling at millions of miles an hour, colliding with Earth's magnetosphere," Brasher said.

Brasher said there are dozens of magnetometer stations that measure fluctuations in Earth's magnetic field, and these fluctuations were measured worldwide because of the storm.

A "localized radio transmitter energizing a small part of the ionosphere over Alaska is not going to have a global effect," Brasher said.

Brasher said scientists had the data and imagery to say what caused the solar storm and could determine it was going to hit us and when. They issued several warnings before the event, as severe solar storms can disrupt communications, navigation systems, power grids and radio and satellite operations.

Our ruling

A Facebook post claimed that May’s widely seen aurora borealis was caused by a HAARP experiment conducted May 8 to May 10. The HAARP experiment, however, was to find ways to detect orbital debris in space and was not related to the worldwide auroral display, which a powerful geomagnetic storm caused. HAARP can create an artificial aurora, but the energy it creates is not strong enough to produce the display seen during a natural aurora.

We rate the claim False.

Our Sources

Facebook post, May 11, 2024

Email and phone interviews, Bryan Brasher, project manager at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's Space Weather Prediction Center, May 13, 2024

Email interview, High-frequency Active Auroral Research Program spokesperson Becky Lindsey, May 13, 2024

High-frequency Active Auroral Research Program, Can HAARP Create an Artificial Aurora?, accessed May 13, 2024

Anchorage Daily News, HAARP experiments could cause artificial aurora over Alaska this weekend, Nov. 4, 2023

NOAA’s Space Weather Prediction Center, Geomagnetic storm watch in effect for May 11, May 9, 2024

NOAA’s Space Weather Prediction Center, X post, May 10, 2024

NOAA’s Space Weather Prediction Center, NOAA Space Weather Scales, accessed May 13, 2024

NOAA’s Space Weather Prediction Center, NOAA forecasts severe solar storm, May 9, 2024 

NOAA’s Space Weather Prediction Center, Strong geomagnetic storm reaches Earth, continues through weekend, May 10, 2024

NOAA’s Space Weather Prediction Center, Aurora, accessed May 13, 2024

NOAA’s Space Weather Prediction Center, Aurora tutorial, accessed May 13, 2024 

University of Alaska, Fairbanks Geophysical Institute, Aurora forecast, accessed May 13, 2024 

Canadian Space Agency, What are the northern lights? accessed May 13, 2024

Library of Congress, ​​What are the northern lights?, accessed May 13, 2024

National Geographic, Aurora, accessed May 13, 2024 

Nine News, Aurora australis dazzles southern parts of the country, May 12, 2024 

NASA, NASA Orbital Debris Program Office, Frequently Asked Questions, May 13, 2024

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Geomagnetic storm, not a HAARP experiment, created dazzling, worldwide northern lights display

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