Global bomb-test monitor could give tsunami warnings

Critics fear use of politically sensitive data.


Real-time data from seismic stations being built to detect nuclear tests may be made available to a proposed tsunami warning system.

The International Monitoring System (IMS) is currently used by a Vienna-based section of the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty Organization (CTBTO) to check for unauthorized nuclear-weapons tests.

Lassina Zerbo, director of the organization's International Data Centre, announced the possible new use of its data at an international meeting at UNESCO in Paris from 3 to 8 March. The gathering was held to discuss technical aspects of the creation of a tsunami warning system for the Indian Ocean.

The IMS is potentially extremely useful. Its planned global network of 321 monitoring stations — of which some 130 are already in operation — will use seismic, hydroacoustic (underwater sound) and infrasound (sound frequency below that detectable by the ear) data to measure tremors. Data can also be relayed in real time around the globe by the CTBTO's satellite infrastructure.

But the move is highly sensitive politically. The CTBTO will make data available to UNESCO's Intergovernmental Oceanographic Commission (IOC), which will not pass the information to any other body or individual.

Initially the IOC will test the types of data that could be useful, and look at how these could be integrated into a warning system.

“We'll see in the next three months whether the data can be used for disaster warning systems,” says the IOC's executive secretary, Patricio Bernal.

The Paris meeting also saw the agreement of a timetable for creating a system of tide gauges and seafloor pressure monitors for the Indian Ocean. By the end of this year, six new monitoring stations will be installed off the coasts of Malaysia, Thailand and Indonesia, and 15 others in the region will be upgraded to monitor sea levels.

By the end of this month, the United States and Japan will provide alerts on all seismic activity in the Indian Ocean region to round-the-clock contact points in the surrounding countries. But discussions on the final form and cost of the Indian Ocean system could take until the end of 2006, says Bernal.


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Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty Organization

Tsunami Warning and Mitigation System for the Indian Ocean

International Coordination Group for the Tsunami Warning System in the Pacific

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Butler, D. Global bomb-test monitor could give tsunami warnings. Nature 434, 261 (2005).

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