How seismologists are tracking North Korea's nuclear weapons tests | Science News

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How earthquake scientists eavesdrop on North Korea’s nuclear blasts

Waves and ripples in the Earth can reveal the location and depth of an explosion

By
12:00pm, July 25, 2017
illustration of seismic waves under a mountain

NUCLEAR SHAKEDOWN  Rumblings of seismic waves reveal clues about North Korea’s nuclear weapons tests, detonated in a mountain.

On September 9 of last year, in the middle of the morning, seismometers began lighting up around East Asia. From South Korea to Russia to Japan, geophysical instruments recorded squiggles as seismic waves passed through and shook the ground. It looked as if an earthquake with a magnitude of 5.2 had just happened. But the ground shaking had originated at North Korea’s nuclear weapons test site.

It was the fifth confirmed nuclear test in North Korea, and it opened the latest chapter in a long-running geologic detective story. Like a police examiner scrutinizing skid marks to figure out who was at fault in a car crash, researchers analyze seismic waves to determine if they come from a natural earthquake or an artificial explosion. If the latter, then scientists can also tease out details such as whether the blast was nuclear and how big it was. Test after test, seismologists are improving

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