Early Tuesday morning, the United States Geological Survey (USGS) data detected a 5.1 magnitude earthquake in North Korea. Within minutes, night owl commenters like Jeffrey Lewis of the Arms Control Wonk in the U.S. were already discussing the political implications of Kim Jong-Un’s first nuclear test. How did seismic readings become key to tracking clandestine nuclear tests?
Let’s look at a little bit of history. In the beginning of the atomic age, nuclear weapons were tested wherever scientists could put a nuke. The first nuclear test ever conducted was above ground, in a sprawling expanse of New Mexico desert. In 1946, President Truman authorized the first underwater nuclear test as part of Operation Crossroads. At the start of the 1950s, nuclear weapons were tested underground in Nevada. A year after Russia launched Sputnik and with the space race well underway, the United States attempted a test high-atmospheric nuclear explosions close to the edge of space. Almost all of these environments would soon be off limits to nuclear testing.
Spurred by concerns that nuclear fallout might spread across national borders, the Test Ban Treaty was signed and entered into force in 1963. The treaty banned tests in the air, in space, and under water. Testing underground, however, was still allowed.
How did seismic readings become key to tracking clandestine nuclear tests?
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