By Tracy Cozzens
Can GPS be used to detect underground nuclear explosions?
A research team is developing a software program that uses GPS to analyze the ionospheric effect of nuclear explosions. Results would show when and where a country has conducted a secret underground nuclear test. Team members are Jihye Park, Ralph. R. B. von Frese, and Dorota A. Grejner-Brzezinska from The Ohio State University and Jade Yu Morton from Miami University.
The Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty was adopted by the United Nations General Assembly in 1996, but not all nuclear countries have ratified it, including the United States, China, Egypt, Indonesia, Iran, and Israel. Also, India, North Korea, and Pakistan have not signed the treaty.
Park, a doctoral student in geodetic science at Ohio State, created the computer program to detect changes in the ionosphere from nuclear weapons testing.
A previous study showed that the ionosphere was disturbed by underground nuclear testing conducted by Russia in 1990. GPS is capable of precisely measuring the total electron content (TEC) of the ionosphere along the path between satellite and receiver at a GPS station, so Park and her team decided to begin researching the use of GPS in detecting nuclear explosions.
“Many studies have been done to monitor and model the atmosphere using GPS technology,” Park said. “Research has proven that GPS can detect natural disasters such as earthquakes or tsunamis. This study broadens those areas of study with its capability to detect underground explosions.”
Detonation of a nuclear weapon results in a shockwave that travels through the atmosphere, changing the density of charged particles in the ionosphere. “The explosions can’t hide from the ionosphere,” said von Frese, geophysicist and project leader. “Our technology would be another nail in the structure to detect explosions.”
“One of the arguments is ‘Well, how do you prove that a clandestine explosion occurred?’” said Grejner-Brzezinska, Park’s adviser and GPS World’s Tech Talk blog editor. “Now we can say, ‘Here, we have the data from GPS to show when and where.’”
According to the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty Organization (CTBTO) nuclear testing has been carried out in the past by the United States, Russia, the United Kingdom, France, China, India, Pakistan, and North Korea (see Figure 1).
Researchers, and those monitoring treaty violations, are able to target specific geographic areas that are equipped for tests, since development of a nuclear test site requires a lot of technical effort and budget. For example, the North Korean tests carried out in 2006 and 2009 were very close geographically.
“They tend to stick to the same site and reuse their facilities for nuclear testing,” von Frese said. “So a country that has previously conducted underground nuclear testing probably will reuse the site if new testing is needed.”
“They could be monitored using GPS as long as there are GPS stations nearby,” Park said.
The new GPS nuclear-detection technology was presented at the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty Organization meeting held June 8–10 in Vienna, Austria, and received press coverage that drew additional interest.
GPS Detection. The team zeroed in on a specific event to test the software, selecting a nuclear test conducted by North Korea in 2009 and using data pulled from nearby South Korean GPS stations.
Traditional detection methods for underground nuclear tests include seismic and other sensors. The CTBTO operates an international monitoring system to detect explosions with a yield of at least one kiloton. Besides seismic sensors, monitoring includes hydroacoustic sensors to monitor for shockwaves on land and in water, infrasound to detect pressure waves, and radionuclide detectors for any gas that may have been generated, though the levels aren’t always detectable.
“Even though there are four different systems available, they sometimes are unable to detect the underground nuclear explosions,” Park said. “GPS technology will make the detection validation stronger since each of them is based on a different theory. In the case of the nuclear test conducted by North Korea in 2009, only seismic and a few infrasound sensors detected the event because of their improved containment technique. Our study tracked down the 2009 event using GPS, and found it coincided with the seismic results.”
Park was able to take advantage of the well-established worldwide infrastructure already in place for GPS for her software test. The team used GPS data recorded by South Korean GPS receivers of the 2009 North Korea test. “There are a few IGS (International GNSS Service) stations in South Korea, China, and Japan. Since South Korea runs their own GPS network, I requested the data so that we could obtain data from more stations located in South Korea,” Park said.
“Since the stations we chose were permanent reference stations controlled by an international organization (IGS) and a specific country (Republic of Korea or South Korea) respectively, most of them have been running continuously except for unexpected data gaps from time to time,” Park said. Figure 2 shows the GPS stations processed for the project.
With data in hand, Park was able to test her software. The results showed definite peaks from different stations at different times after the 2009 explosion. “We realized that the time of the detected peak was dependent on the distance between underground nuclear explosion and each GPS station,” Park said. Figure 3 shows four different stations’ TIDs (traveling ionospheric disturbances) that the team initially recognized.
Ruling Out Quakes. One big challenge using GPS for ionospheric monitoring is determining the origin of an event. “Since earthquakes also disturb the ionosphere, distinguishing earthquakes from underground nuclear explosions are problematic even with GPS,” Park said. “Indeed, we only focused on examining and isolating TIDs from the nuclear explosions. We are now working to analyze the TIDs from earthquakes and compare them with nuclear TIDs.”
Besides helping to distinguish between earthquakes and nuclear-test explosions, the software may eventually distinguish between nuclear plant fallout and nuclear test fallout.
With this goal in mind, the team is analyzing the ionospheric data gathered from recent nuclear plant accidents such as the one in Japan following the earthquake and tsunami in March. “Since there were data gaps and other data issues, we have as yet nothing more to report. Hopefully, we find the earthquakes’ signature soon.”