Existential threats to humanity, and the role of Earth Science

My first blog post, and it’s a heavy topic! I’m teaching a class this semester on forensic seismology that explores issues of nuclear arms control. Earth Science plays a key role here, just as it does in the other major existential threat to humanity: Climate change. The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists publish the Doomsday clock, which today includes both of these threats (and the threat of cyber information warfare) that put us closer to midnight than during the height of the Cold War:

There are some interesting parallels between these problems. They both require political and technical solutions. In the case of arms control, several important treaties including the Limited Test Ban Treaty (LTBT), Threshold Test Ban Treaty (TTBT), and Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) have been quite successful in dampening the nuclear arms race and limiting the spread of nuclear weapons. Climate change treaties (e.g., Kyoto Protocol, Paris agreement), in contrast, have been inadequate to tackle the problem so far.

To be successful, it seems like treaties must make concrete pledges, and they must be verifiable. Earth Science plays a key role here in providing the tools to verify nuclear weapons testing (and possible future carbon treaties). I’m proud to work in an Earth Science department that has already played a key role in arms control treaties. Other former (and current) faculty members have played roles in negotiating the Threshold Test Ban Treaty and Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty.

While I’ve not been involved in treaty negotiations directly, I have been fortunate to have worked on practical problems on using a global network of infrasound sensors to help verify a Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) (which remains in political limbo). The technical challenge of using infrasound data to verify a CTBT is significant, but it’s worth remembering how young the global network of sensors is. At the end of 2000, only one station was transmitting data. Today, there are 48 stations distributed worldwide (https://www.ctbto.org/map/). We’re still learning how to process data from a global network of infrasound stations, including how to detect, locate, and characterize possible nuclear tests. While political progress has stagnated, and may be reversing, we can continue to make technical progress on important problems!

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