From Bungled Bombs to Submarine Tragedies, Seismology Isn't Just for Earthquakes

Dr. Mark Andrew Tinker
Quantum Technology Services, Inc.

Guest speaker, Friday, April 13, 2001, BEG seminar


The first nuclear explosion, detonated on July 16, 1945, had not only an obvious impact on world history but also a profound influence on the geosciences. Following the first underground explosion in 1957, the U.S. felt the need to improve its ability to monitor nuclear explosions and launched project VELA Uniform in 1959. A portion of VELA resulted in the global deployment of 125 analog seismic stations. The data collected from these stations infused the community, and the science of seismology blossomed.

Forty years later, digital seismic networks span the globe, recording the full usable range of frequencies and telemetering data in near real time. Verification seismology has become an entity unto itself, focusing on the detection, accurate location, and identification of nuclear explosion sources. In turn, as the number of seismic stations increases, a new area of study has emerged known as forensic seismology. It focuses on "exotic" sources, or those unusual sources that are neither earthquake nor nuclear.

Prominent examples of a nuclear test and an exotic explosion were recently reported. In 1998, in a nuclear version of "saber rattling," both India and Pakistan conducted explosions in conjunction with extraordinary claims. Last year, the Russian submarine Kursk was lost in a training accident and seismic data were used as evidence of what might have happened.