Surveillance network built to spot secret nuclear tests yields surprise scientific boon

The Washington Post reports: It records sounds that no human ear can hear, like the low roar of a meteor slicing through the upper atmosphere, or the hum an iceberg makes when smacked by an ocean wave.

It has picked up threats invisible to the human eye, such as the haze of radioactive particles that circled the planet after the Fukushima nuclear accident in Japan in 2011.

The engineers who designed the world’s first truly planetary surveillance network two decades ago envisioned it as a way to detect illegal nuclear weapons tests. Today, the nearly completed International Monitoring System is proving adept at tasks its inventors never imagined. The system’s scores of listening stations continuously eavesdrop on Earth itself, offering clues about man-made and natural disasters as well as a window into some of nature’s most mysterious processes.

The Obama administration hopes the network’s capabilities will persuade a reluctant Senate to approve a nuclear test-ban treaty that stalled in Congress more than a decade ago. Meanwhile, without the treaty and wholly without fanfare, new stations come on line almost every month.

“We can pick up whale sounds, and ice sheets cracking,” said Thomas Muetzelburg, a spokesman for the Comprehensive Nuclear Test-Ban Treaty Organization (CTBTO), the Vienna-based group that operates the network. More importantly, he said, “we can reliably detect nuclear tests.”

The monitoring system is a latticework of sensors — including radiation detectors and machines that measure seismic activity or low-frequency sound waves — spread out across 89 countries as well as the oceans and polar regions. Like a giant stethoscope, it listens for irregularities in Earth’s natural rhythms, collecting and transmitting terabytes of data to a small office in the Austrian capital.

The network was designed to help enforce the 1996 Comprehensive Nuclear Test-Ban Treaty, which outlawed explosive testing of nuclear weapons. But while the treaty has never entered into force — the United States and seven other countries have declined to ratify it, in part because of concerns over verification — the monitoring network has steadily grown over the years, from a handful of stations in 2003 to more than 270.

The network has emerged as one of the most compelling arguments for the treaty, advocates say. Arms-control officials in the Obama administration have cited the network’s advances in arguing for a new push for Senate ratification of the nuclear test ban, despite opposition from prominent Republicans who argue that the pact undermines U.S. interests.

“There has been a growing realization, especially after Fukushima, that the International Monitoring System has improved to an impressive level,” Rose Gottemoeller, the State Department’s assistant secretary for arms control, verification and compliance, said in an interview. “It became clear that the time is right to go out and talk about these accomplishments and what the treaty can do for U.S. national security.” [Continue reading…]

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