Public Release: 

Monitoring Nuclear Explosions: Why, How, and What is Learned?

A presentation by Dr. Paul G. Richards, Columbia University

The Earth Institute at Columbia University

Recent headlines have revealed the fragility of the international bans on nuclear weapons proliferation and testing. Pakistan has been accused of indiscriminately disclosing nuclear weapons technology. The United Nations International Atomic Energy Agency estimates that 35 to 40 nations have the knowledge to build an atomic weapon. This is in stark contrast to the five that had such weapons when the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty was negotiated in the late 1960s. At the request of the Bush Administration, Congress has funded new nuclear weapons design studies and increased preparedness of the Nevada Test Site to resume nuclear testing. It is a pivotal moment for arms control as many countries seek to prevent the proliferation of nuclear weapons.

"Monitoring Nuclear Explosions" is a lecture by Dr. Paul G. Richards--one of the seismologists from Columbia University's Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory responsible for developing the methods used to distinguish between earthquakes and explosions. Richards also worked for two years in the US Arms Control and Disarmament Agency and as an expert advisor to the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty negotiations in Geneva. To date, about 2,000 nuclear weapons tests have been carried out as an intrinsic part of weapons development. In his presentation, Richards discusses the use of seismological methods to detect, identify, locate, and determine the size of underground nuclear explosions. He also discusses the successes and difficulties of taking this objective technical information into a charged political arena where there are deep divides on the issues of arms control.

Seismology provides a key technology in both nuclear arms control and in military intelligence. Global monitoring operations enable us to assess the capability of nuclear weapons deployed by potential adversaries, as well as to detect breaches to the Test Ban Treaty. Additionally, these same global operations have revolutionized the Earth sciences, enabling detailed studies of plate tectonics, seismic hazards, and the physics of earthquakes.

Dr. Paul G. Richards is the Mellon Professor of the Natural Sciences and a seismologist with the Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory, a member of the Earth Institute at Columbia University. Between 1986 and 1990, Richards gave congressional testimony five times on monitoring nuclear explosions. He has devoted much of his life's work to developing and utilizing seismological methods to study nuclear explosions, which have implications in both the scientific and political worlds. He has provided professional advice on seismic monitoring of nuclear testing to the U.S. Arms Control and Disarmament Agency, the Office of Technology Assessment, and the U.S. Air Force, among other agencies. He has authored some 100 technical papers on seismology, including some 40 papers on explosion monitoring. From 1981 to 1986 he was a MacArthur Fellow. In 1996, Richards and a fellow Lamont-Doherty scientist discovered seismological evidence that the inner core of the Earth is rotating eastwards with respect to the mantle and crust.

This spring semester, Richards is co-teaching a new undergraduate course at Columbia titled "Weapons of Mass Destruction," a review of the history and environmental consequences of nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons of mass destruction.

Title: Monitoring Nuclear Explosions: Why, How, and What is Learned?

Presenter: Dr. Paul G. Richards, Mellon Professor of Natural Sciences, Lamont-Doherty

When: Tuesday, February 3, 2004, 4:00 p.m.

Where: Schapiro Center, Davis Auditorium, Columbia University Morningside Campus, 530 120th Street, between Broadway and Amsterdam. (1 or 9 Subway to 116th Street)

Admission: Free

Sponsor: This lecture is part of an annual Science Lecture Series sponsored by The Earth Institute at Columbia University, which aspires to be the world's leading academic center for the integrated study of Earth, its environment, and society. The Earth Institute builds upon excellence in the core disciplines--Earth sciences, biological sciences, engineering sciences, social sciences and health sciences--and stresses cross-disciplinary approaches to complex problems. Through its research training and global partnerships, it mobilizes science and technology to advance sustainable development, while placing special emphasis on the needs of the world's poor. For more information, visit


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