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Seismologists say their research can help track secret nuclear weapons tests

(Credit: David Titensor, University of Utah)

UNIVERSITY OF UTAH – Could the people that monitor earthquakes help protect global security?  One University of Utah seismologist is calling on the UN to better use meters around the world to spot secret nuclear weapons tests that may have been going unnoticed.

You may be surprised to learn how sensitive seismometers are.  Officials with the University of Utah Seismograph Stations say they can pick up construction, traffic and even wind.

“The seismometers are sensitive enough to record one-billionth of a meter [of movement],” according to Director Keith Koper.

Devices in Utah were able to detect and record six different nuclear weapons test explosions in North Korea.

Koper says, “I think it is counter-intuitive that something so far away could be recorded, but that’s the way the physics work.”

Currently, the UN oversees the International Monitoring System, which tracks quakes all over the world.  Koper is calling on the UN to use that system to possibly track where these weapons are being tested.  However, he says the system, as it is now, might not be sufficient.

“That network is really good, the IMS, but, if you really want to get down to tiny explosions, you need to add to it,” Koper says.

There are smaller test explosions that Koper says could only be well-tracked from less than 150 miles.  If devices are further away, these smaller tests may appear like regular earthquakes.  He says there are many meters all over the world that aren’t being used by the IMS.

He says, “There are a ton of seismometers in South Korea that are not used by the IMS.  There are a lot of seismometers in Japan.”