What Was That Big Bang?

by | 3.10.2009 at 10:46am
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Trinity nuclear test, New Mexico, 1945

Trinity nuclear test, New Mexico, 1945

Iran seems to be moving toward an atomic bomb; North Korea reportedly could build a half dozen; and terrorist attacks have revived the specter of a faceoff between nuclear-armed Pakistan and India. Yet the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, forbidding  nuclear testing, has failed to win ratification from the U.S. Senate and lawmakers of some other nations. Opponents say scientists cannot reliably detect clandestine tests: Why should we go along, if others can cheat?

In a new article for Scientific American, two leading seismologists demolish this argument. Paul Richards and Won-Young Kim, both at Columbia University’s Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory, detail advances in seismology in the past several years that they say enable scientists to distinguish between even small nuclear explosions, and earthquakes, mine collapses or meteors. All display different characteristics, and thousands of seismic stations now deployed across the world–some specializing in nuclear detection, others all-purpose observatories–can tell the difference, they say.

Richards has served as a U.S. expert on nuclear arms since the 1980s; Kim heads the instrument network that monitors earthquakes and other seismic phenomena (including the 2001 collapse of the World Trade Center) across  the northeast United States. Among other pursuits, both have worked to decode once-secret seismic data from the northern archipelago of Novaya Zemlya and the central Asian republic of Kazakhstan recording Soviet-era bomb tests.

The piece comes at a critical time. Former president George W. Bush declared the CTBT (and plenty of  other treaties) contrary to the interests of the United States. But President Barack Obama says he will work to bring the treaty into force. Richards and Kim write that the CTBT is “a vital step in strengthening global efforts to prevent the proliferation of nuclear weapons  and a new nuclear arms race.”

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