Maintaining its pool of analysts: CTBTO completes 11th IDC Analyst Course.

Maintaining its pool of analysts: CTBTO completes 11th IDC Analyst Course.

Taking the pulse of the planet

On the night of 21 November, 2009, a sudden burst of greenish blue light flooded the skies of South Africa over Johannesburg and Pretoria and as quickly faded away.

More than eight thousand kilometres to the north in Vienna, Austria, the event, probably a bolide (a meteorite) entering the atmosphere, would test Linda Akromah’s new found skills as she neared the end of a three and a half month training course in the headquarters of the Preparatory Commission for the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty Organization (CTBTO).

Akromah is an analyst in South Africa’s National Data Centre and had been selected for the training course together with nine other young analysts.
The CTBTO International Monitoring System (IMS) takes the pulse of the planet from an array of monitors on land and under the sea to ensure compliance with the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty (CTBT), which bans all nuclear explosions.

More than 250 monitoring facilities

More than 250 monitoring facilities – there will be 337 when the system is complete -- have been installed from the poles to the tropics to police the planet for nuclear explosions. They employ seismic, hydro acoustic and infrasound technologies to register shock waves underground, under water and in the atmosphere respectively, and they use the radionuclide technology to sniff the air for any sign of radioactivity.

The information gathered is sent by satellite to the International Data Centre (IDC) in Vienna where IDC analysts screen the huge flow after it has been machine reviewed.

Infrasound data from the monitoring of low frequency sound waves is a unique feature of the system, providing it with a highly sensitive hearing aid capable of detecting blast waves up to several thousand kilometers from their source. The technology was revived when the Treaty was negotiated in the 1990’s after falling out of use for several decades.

In the South African data centre the emphasis has been on using the seismic tools available for monitoring, Akromah said.

But now, she said, she can help introduce infrasound analysis by sharing her knowledge with her colleagues in South Africa. “It will be very useful to have another technology we can use to make sure about the nature of events.”
She was in fact able to confirm, based on the Reviewed Event Bulletin (REB), the result of analysis of raw IMS data, that there had been an event in South Africa on 21 November.

Training analysts

In Vienna Akromah and four other trainee analysts studied analysis of seismic, hydro acoustic and infrasound data; another five studied data analysis from radionuclide monitoring, and the part  atmospheric winds play in dispersal of radionuclides and noble gases that may be released by a  nuclear test.

Each year the CTBTO invites candidates from among its 182 member states to participate in its analysts training course in the IDC, to maintain an international pool of analysts and assist countries to better utilize the data they receive.

Data collected by the CTBTO monitoring system has a wide range of civil uses, from disaster management, to providing better detection of volcanic eruptions and earthquakes, to giving warning about tsunamis. As well, atmospheric transport modeling, required to track radioactive particles and gases from possible tests, in concert with radionuclide analysis, is contributing to knowledge about climate change. Underwater hydro-acoustic monitoring offers scientists non intrusive ways to study the movements of whales.

While member states are able to request raw data, much of it in real time, IDC analysts also provide a number of reviewed products to the national data centres of member states.

Civil applications for CTBTO data

Haijung Wang, from China’s National Data Centre, among the trainee analysts, said he anticipates that in China in future there will be more civil applications for the IDC data. “For me an important benefit of the course was to better understand the role of the analyst and the quality of the product,” he said.

Elisabetta Nava, who works in Italy’s National Data Centre, and studied radionuclide analysis in the course, said one of its values was to provide her with a better understanding of procedures in the development of data products that the IDC delivers. If Italy embarks on a nuclear power programme radionuclide analysis will also be an important tool in ensuring public safety, she said.

Ten years ago Ethiopian-born Misrak Fisseha was among the trainee analysts who completed the IDC course. She was recruited by the CTBTO, and became an associate and then a lead analyst.

At this year’s training course, she was one of two trainers providing instruction about analysis of seismic, hydro acoustic and infrasound verification technologies. She is proof, she told the trainees at their closing meeting, that the IDC analyst training course successfully increases the pool of candidates for future IDC positions.