November/December 1999


In August 1997 Secretary of State Madeline Albright summoned the Russian Ambassador to the State Department. Asserting that Russia had conducted a probable underground nuclear explosion at its test site on the Arctic island of Novaya Zemlya, the United States issued a demarche. But at the same time the U.S. government was claiming that Russia had violated international law, other seismologists were accessing open data and presenting analyses that demonstrated the basis for the charge was incorrect. Their results showed that the associated seismic signals did not emanate from the test site, but rather from a nearby earthquake in the Kara Sea. With other scientists publicizing their conclusions in newspapers and scientific news journals, the United States reassessed the data and dropped its charge of a demarche.

The August 1997 event is frequently cited as an example by both sides in the debate over whether data from the International Monitoring System (IMS) for the Comprehensive Nuclear Test-Ban Treaty (CTBT) should be openly available. To some, the outside seismologists were meddling individuals interfering with government activity, second-guessing officials, and subverting U.S. policy. To others, they were responsible and concerned citizens applying the basic scientific tenets of open analysis and peer review to public policy. In general, one's opinion of their actions seems to reflect one's own philosophical view of democracy, government, and citizenship.

No matter in which direction one's philosophical compass may point on the August 1997 event, the technological direction for the future is clear. Low-cost, high-bandwidth, global communication services are ushering in a new era of opportunity. Data are now easily and inexpensively collected from around the world in near real-time. The ability of scientists (or anyone else for that matter) to collect data and to make independent assessments about nuclear testing and treaty compliance is irrevocable, and in the future will only become greater.

While this may be bad news for those who wish to control information, it is terrific news for science. The annals of geoscience are brimming with occasions where large data sets have yielded great and unanticipated discoveries, most notably the discovery of seafloor spreading and magnetic anomalies through the military-sponsored collection of magnetic data. Recognizing the potential benefit of open data, the American Geophysical Union, representing over 35,000 scientists, has adopted a general position statement on data archiving and availability that calls for "full and open sharing" of data.

Due to the particular nature of the science (after all, one cannot do very much with the data from a single seismic station), seismology has a strong tradition of cooperation and open data exchange. At the turn of the century, original seismograms were exchanged by mail and information about the timing of phase arrivals was freely sent by telex. In the 1960's, the WorldWide Standardized Seismic Network was installed to support both treaty monitoring and earthquake mitigation, and the data were openly distributed. More recently, the Global Seismographic Network (GSN) has carried on the tradition of open data and multiuse, and the benefits have been enormous. By making the GSN useful not only for academic research but also for nuclear monitoring, the research community received supplemental funding from Congress. The supplemental funding contributed to the installation of over half the GSN stations. Further, the recognition of the multi-use nature of the GSN resulted in additional funds to the U.S. Geological Survey and the National Science Foundation for the ongoing operation of the GSN. In a jointly authored article for Eos, the Director of the National Science Foundation and the Director of the U.S. Geological Survey referred to the Global Seismographic Network as a "blueprint for scientific programs that not only advance our understanding of the physical world, but also address the needs of our society", and they called upon the scientific community to "recognize our joint responsibility for all applications [of seismology] that benefit society."

Nuclear monitoring has benefited similarly. Over 50 GSN stations are part of the official monitoring system, and other GSN stations have provided key data for resolving ambiguous events. Data from the GSN station in Kevo, Finland, for example, were critical for determining that the location of the August 1997 seismic event could not have been at the Russian test site on Novaya Zemlya. The GSN station in Nilore, Pakistan provided the most useful data for independently evaluating India's claims concerning the size and number of its 1998 tests.

Ironically, it is the CTBT, a treaty that requires extraordinary country-to-country cooperation, that now stands as a major threat to the culture of open data exchange that has served as the cornerstone of seismology. The Seismological Society of America and the IRIS Consortium have supported specific efforts to ensure that data from the International Monitoring System of the CTBT will be available without any restrictions or delays. Several important steps have already been accomplished:

  1. Although the Treaty calls for each State Party to "treat as Confidential" information and data that it receives "in confidence" from the Comprehensive Nuclear Test-Ban Treaty Organization, the scientific use of the data was protected in the treaty with a separate article (Article IV.A.10) that states:
    The provisions of this Treaty shall not be interpreted as restricting the international exchange of data for scientific purposes.

  3. The U.S. Administration has adopted the following policy for the CTBT:
    U.S. Policy is to make raw data from U.S. IMS stations available to [U.S. government] entities and contractors as needed for official purposes (including non-CTBT purposes, e.g., hazard warnings and environmental monitoring) and to the public without restrictions." "The U.S. seeks to make raw IMS data from other signatories freely available outside the [U.S. government]. U.S. [delegation] should thus seek the agreement of other signatories in Working Group B to this outcome ...."

  5. The Senate Foreign Relations Committee included in the Foreign Relations Authorization Act, FY 00/01 (Sec. 616), legislation stating that:
    The United States government shall make available to the public in real time, or as quickly as possible, all raw seismological data provided to the United States Government by any international organization that is directly responsible for seismological monitoring.

Despite these clear policy directives, a few people continue to resist the open release of data from the International Monitoring System. In defense of their position, they cite concerns about the poor quality control of raw data, implying that government restrictions are necessary to protect the public from incorrect information and analysis. One can only speculate as to whether such concerns are genuine or whether they simply provide convenient arguments for protecting individual programs and funding rationales. What is clear, however, is that they stand in the way of both scientific research and nuclear monitoring.

No one is suggesting that we compromise our intelligence systems by divulging otherwise unknown sources, methods, or capabilities. But whenever possible, should we not allow our national security to benefit from the same type of critical review and independent assessment that we use to advance science? If so, we must keep our evaluations open to critical review and continue to retest our conclusions as new data become available. To do that, we must maintain our culture of open data exchange.

Although the International Monitoring System will remain fixed by the treaty, seismic stations will continue to be installed around the world in regional networks designed for earthquake hazard assessment and scientific research. For many areas of the world, the high-density coverage of these regional networks will inevitably provide a capability that far surpasses that of the official treaty monitoring system. It is quite likely, therefore, that if evidence of a clandestine nuclear weapon test is discovered, it will be from data-collection facilities that were never specifically intended for nuclear monitoring.

Just as nuclear monitoring will benefit, so will scientific research. If the data are openly available, breakthroughs in scientific research will occur with data from the treaty-monitoring network. Nuclear monitoring data, for example, have already been used for addressing fundamental questions about the rotation of the Earth's inner core.

We must not pretend, however, that the benefits of open data can be reaped without at times paying the price of controversy. Just as we can not have free speech without occasionally hearing it used in an offensive or destructive manner, we cannot openly distribute data without occasionally seeing the data misrepresented. But it would be foolish to try to avoid controversy by restricting data. Inevitably, digital data and global communication networks will provide thousands of openly accessible resources that can be used to monitor environmental factors and help characterize a suspicious seismic event. When such events occur, Internet sites containing the relevant (and irrelevant) data are likely to appear long before intelligence information can be digested by governments or before memos can work their way through bureaucratic channels. Competitive news organizations will not wait for the carefully crafted prose of government press releases before pursuing alternative technical judgements and scientific opinions.

The future challenge for treaty monitoring is not to reign over selective data sources, but rather to integrate the vast and continually evolving array of global information sources into their analytical systems. The new challenge for seismology is to maintain the culture of free and open data exchange within this new environment, despite the inevitable controversies and misuse.

Gregory van der Vink and Terry Wallace

Gregory van der Vink is Director of Planning for the IRIS Consortium and a member of the State Department's Arms Control and Nonproliferation Advisory Board. Terry Wallace is a Professor of Geophysics at the University of Arizona and President of the Seismological Society of America. The views expressed in this editorial are theirs and do not necessarily reflect those of any institution with which they are affiliated.

To send a letter to the editor regarding this opinion or to write your own opinion, contact Editor John Ebel by email or telephone him at (617) 552-8300.

Posted: 10 November 1999