Weapons Tests: How The U.N. Keeps Its Ear To The Ground

With the breakup of the Soviet Union, the threat of worldwide nuclear war may have diminished. But that doesn't mean other countries will refrain from developing their own nuclear prowess. To keep tabs on them and to uphold disarmament treaties, a U. N. committee called the Group of Scientific Experts is developing a global computer network to detect secret underground weapons tests.

The network will link 60 existing seismic monitoring stations in 34 countries, including the U. S., China, Germany, Japan, and the former Soviet Union. The equipment monitors ground motion, filtering out tremors caused by events such as coal-mine blasts. When unusual motion is detected, the data will be transmitted immediately, via satellite, throughout the network. Earthquake researchers and geologists will also have access to the data.

The big technical obstacle, says committee adviser and Southern Methodist University geophysicist Eugene Herrin, is how to link different computers and communications gear globally. But part of the system has already passed a key test. In a 42-day trial last spring, stations in the South Pacific detected underground nuclear tests conducted by France.

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