How India's nuclear secrecy hampers earthquake detection

Fear of revealing nuclear testing and the refusal to sign the test ban treaty delay the exchange of seismic data.

In the wake of the recent earthquake that devastated Kashmir, some Indian officials are reevaluating the government's refusal to share real-time online seismology data with the international community.

India has balked at putting seismic data online because it could provide evidence of underground nuclear testing. The country's refusal to sign the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty also excludes it from exchanging data with the International Monitoring System, a global network of seismological sensors operated by treaty signatories.

Seismologists can more rapidly and accurately pinpoint the location and power of an earthquake when real-time data can be triangulated against a wide network of sensors. A delay of even seconds in reporting data induces errors in the exact location and could set back relief efforts in their crucial early stages, prompting some scientists here to argue against data hoarding.

"In India, the nuclear issue is a sensitive one. But now the question is about saving lives. The policy certainly needs a review," says Sushil Gupta from the Stress Analysis and Seismology Department at the Nuclear Power Corporation of India in Bombay.

Meanwhile, relief efforts continue in regions of India and Pakistan affected by the Oct. 8 quake that has claimed an estimated 54,000 lives. Some injured people still await transport to hospitals by helicopter, an effort hindered in recent days by torrential rain and snow. The chief minister of India's Jammu-Kashmir state called on Delhi Monday to restore telephone links, cut since 1990, between his state and Pakistan so that people could find out what happened to relatives across the border.

As for the value of sharing seismic data in the event of a future earthquake, some decision-makers in Delhi have yet to get the message. "Share data? What for?" asked an official from the Ministry of Science, sounding nonplussed when questioned about India's policy to not make real-time data available via broadband.

"Effectively reporting seismic hazards considerably reduces vulnerability to it, if not totally eliminates it," says David Booth from the British Geological Survey. He notes that at international meetings seismologists have frequently deplored the absence of free seismic data exchange with India, but to little effect.

"Open-data sharing in seismology over the past century ... has been of enormous importance in reporting of earthquakes and studies of global and regional earthquakes," says Shane Ingate, director of operations at the Incorporated Research Institutions for Seismology (IRIS) in Washington, the world's repository for data from most seismic networks around the globe. "It is regrettable that India ... imposes restriction on the open and rapid access of these important data."

Though India is free to contribute to and draw from IRIS's data, the country does neither. "All Indian data contributed to the IRIS would then become free and openly accessible to anyone that requests it. India is probably wary of that," says Mr. Ingate.

Seismology can provide national maps of earthquake shaking hazards which yield information essential to building codes in regions of known earthquake activity, explains Ingate. Such "shake maps" can also predict the intensity of shaking due to an earthquake, he says. "Then, when an earthquake occurs, given accurate location and magnitude determination, these shake maps allow first responders to develop a coordinated response to move directly and precisely to the areas with the most societal impact."

This kind of information, Ingate says, becomes less accurate along the edges, or outside a seismic network, as when one country does not share its in-country network data with those in-country networks in surrounding regions.

On request, India does share a kind of data called "phase data," which helps in detailed analysis of earthquakes. But there's a time lapse associated with it. "Delays of even minutes to seconds can severely impede the ability to provide rapid and accurate reporting of earthquakes," says Ingate.

Kapil Sibal, the minister of science and technology, acknowledged to reporters in Delhi last week that "India surely needs to network with the rest of the global earthquake community. It needs to re-think on all old issues."

"That's a big policy decision made at high levels within the Indian government," says Rajendra Kumar Chadha, a scientist at the National Geophysical Research Institute in Hyderabad. He advocates that all stations in the Himalayan network be well connected to speedily transmit real-time online data to the Indian Meteorological Department in Delhi, and to the rest of the globe. "Considering how rigid we are about nuclear issues, acknowledging we need to review the policy is a big step forward."

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