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CTBTO Releases Test Ban Monitoring Data for Tsunami Warning

Oliver Meier

Last December’s deadly tsunami in the Indian Ocean might inspire an additional mission for the international organization that is tasked with eventually verifying the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT).

On March 4, the Preparatory Commission (PrepCom) for the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty Organization (CTBTO) in Vienna decided to explore options for releasing data from its International Monitoring System (IMS) to tsunami warning organizations. On a trial basis, the Provisional Technical Secretariat of the CTBTO was given the mandate to share data from its seismic and hydroacoustic stations immediately with any tsunami warning organization recognized by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO).

The goal of the test is to identify how the Provisional Technical Secretariat might best contribute to a tsunami warning system for the Indian Ocean. Based on the results of that test, states-parties later this year will decide whether and to what extent CTBTO permanently will share IMS data with a tsunami early-warning system.

The Dec. 26 earthquake that triggered the tsunami provided clear evidence that IMS data can contribute to existing and future tsunami early warning systems. The earthquake was detected by 78 IMS stations. The information was transmitted in near-real time to those countries that have signed the CTBT and subscribe to the data service of its International Data Center. Among those countries afflicted by the tsunami, Australia, Indonesia, Kenya, Malawi, Oman, South Africa, and Thailand are equipped with data receiving centers and received data from the CTBTO’s International Data Center, which is based in Vienna. However, under current procedures, India, one of the countries most heavily affected by the tsunami, cannot receive IMS data because its government has refused to sign the CTBT.

The March 4 decision is a milestone after years of nearly fruitless discussions on the possible use of IMS data for scientific, humanitarian, and disaster relief purposes. It marks the first time that the CTBTO will share current data with recipients outside the circle of state signatories. In 2002, the PrepCom decided to release IMS seismological data to the International Seismological Center, a British nongovernmental organization. This action, however, concerned only old monitoring data.

Although the release of data is strictly limited for the purpose of tsunami early warning, it could in the long run pave the way for a much wider use of nuclear test ban monitoring data for non-test ban purposes. Several scientific and humanitarian relief organizations have expressed an interest in receiving IMS data.

Some options for wider data sharing have been discussed in past workshops in London, Berlin, and Sopron, Hungary, organized by member states with the support of the Provisional Technical Secretariat. Among the scenarios discussed were the use of infrasound data to warn civil aviation of volcanic eruptions and the use of seismic data to better target humanitarian relief operations after an earthquake. But these discussions did not advance far before the tsunami struck. The humanitarian catastrophe that followed, which claimed hundreds of thousands of lives, apparently swept away many obstacles.

Concerns About Sharing IMS Data
Before reaching their decision to release IMS data for tsunami early warning, signatory states raised several concerns. Some CTBTO members expressed concern that the new arrangement would compromise the confidentiality of monitoring data. They called for a narrow reading of the treaty text, which obliges the Provisional Technical Secretariat “to make available all data, both raw and processed, and any reporting products, to all states-parties.” Opponents of a wider release of IMS data argue that this confidentiality clause excludes the distribution of IMS data to recipients other than national governments in CTBT signatories. Others, including the United States, have been arguing that the treaty does not explicitly ban giving the data to other organizations.

Still, in the run-up to the session on March 4, states such as China and Israel, which in the past have taken conservative approaches to issues of confidentiality, did not oppose the release of IMS data for tsunami early warning. Signatory states did insist that the release of data be for humanitarian purposes only and that recipients of the data be defined clearly. In the final agreement, signatories agreed that confidentiality issues will remain on the table and that the Provisional Technical Secretariat will examine possible implications of the release of IMS data on “matters related to confidentiality.”

They also limited the distribution of data to international tsunami warning organizations recognized by UNESCO. It will be up to these organizations to request data that they might find useful. Technical tests will then be carried out to address “the nature, quality, quantity, timeliness, and usefulness of information provided.”

The Provisional Technical Secretariat was given permission to begin sharing some data immediately, on a test basis, with the Intergovernmental Oceanographic Commission (IOC) of UNESCO. The data will be sent to the IOC’s tsunami warning center for the Pacific Ocean, which is serving as an interim warning center for the Indian Ocean until a planned Regional Tsunami Warning and Mitigation System for the area is up and running. In principle, data from all 50 primary seismic and 11 hydroacoustic stations around the world could be delivered to the IOC.

Signatories also raised concerns about the possibility of CTBTO mission creep and the worry that CTBTO might devolve into a natural disaster warning system. As the CTBT is still short of obtaining the required 44 ratifications needed to trigger its entry into force, some states-parties want the CTBTO to remain solely focused on its primary mission. Acknowledging this concern, the March 4 decision states that “the contribution must not divert or change the task of the [PrepCom] of establishing, provisionally operating, testing and evaluating the verification system.”

Signatories also expressed a related worry that the new initiative might affect the status of the CTBTO itself. Officially, until the treaty’s entry into force, the Provisional Technical Secretariat is merely testing and simulating the treaty’s capabilities for test ban verification. Involving it in tsunami warning will, however, move the verification system closer to its operational status because it requires that the system provide data services on a continuous basis.

Behind this argument lie diplomatic and political concerns. Some states, particularly Brazil and Argentina, cautioned during the recent session against a release of IMS data for tsunami warning because they feared that increased IMS data availability would remove an incentive for the United States to ratify the CTBT.

The U.S. Senate voted against ratification of the treaty in 1999, and the Bush administration has said that it does not support the CTBT. Still, the United States is one of the largest beneficiaries of IMS data. It provides the United States with critical monitoring capabilities that its national intelligence network is not able to provide. Brazil and Argentina argued that providing IMS data on a continuous basis before entry into force would let the United States have the best of both worlds: around-the-clock IMS data without ratification. This argument, however, did not convince most other signatories. As one Western diplomat stated to Arms Control Today March 15, “This is the wrong issue to play politics with.”

The Future
After they receive the report of the successes of the data sharing tests, the PrepCom at its next regular meeting June 27-30 or, more likely, at a working group meeting at the end of August is expected to evaluate the results and make a final decision on the contribution of CTBTO to a tsunami warning center. At that point, the price tag will become a factor. According to a confidential Provisional Technical Secretariat options paper, it will cost a minimum of $250,000 annually to provide raw data from some stations. Most of this money would be for software adjustments in the International Data Center and does not include the costs for additional manpower or hardware. Providing additional services, such as timely information on preselected events, will further raise costs. Most of the outlay will occur during the initial start-up phase. Some hope that the amount will be covered at least partly by an international fund, which was set up to finance the new warning center for the Indian Ocean.

Yet, the new costs could come at a time that the CTBTO might receive less money from state signatories. For example, the Bush administration’s fiscal year budget request to Congress for the CTBTO is $14.35 million, which falls short of the assessed U.S. contribution for the coming year by approximately $4 million. CTBTO’s 2005 annual budget is $105 million.

Most observers in Vienna were skeptical about whether the decision to release IMS data for tsunami early warning will serve as a precedent for similar decisions to contribute to scientific, humanitarian, and disaster relief purposes. Still, “the decision taken by the PrepCom has certainly made the discussion more dynamic,” Bernhard Wrabetz, special assistant to CTBTO Executive Secretary Wolfgang Hoffmann, told Arms Control Today March 15. “The debate is not over yet.”