1997-2006: The pioneering decade

Gerardo Suárez, Director of the IMS Division at the Preparatory Commission for the CTBTO between 1997 and 2006.

Over the past decade, the International Monitoring System (IMS) has progressively benefited from the generous support and collaboration of literally hundreds of institutions, both technical and political, all over the world. Based on these partnerships, a monitoring network unprecedented in history has been built up. According to Gerardo Suárez, who chaired the initial meeting of the IMS team in August 1997 and was Director of the IMS Division at the Preparatory Commission for the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty Organization (CTBTO) between 1997 and 2006, IMS was “one of the more ambitious projects ever to monitor the earth is now a reality.”

“One of the more ambitious projects ever to monitor the earth is now a reality.” - Gerardo Suárez, Director International Monitoring System Division, 1997-2006

Building up the network

In August 1997, the first IMS team met to take stock of the situation and size up the daunting technical task of building up a monitoring network as rapidly as possible, while adhering to the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty’s (CTBT) stringent specifications. It was, in many cases, new ground.

Four different technologies were to be installed at altogether 337 facilities located all around the world

An innovative “build-as-you-design” approach characterized the IMS’s first pioneering years. Four different technologies were to be installed at altogether 337 facilities located all around the world:

  • Seismic: a total of 170 seismological stations—50 primary, 120 auxiliary (i.e. auxiliary stations that do not transmit information on an ongoing basis but respond only to specific requests)—to monitor the underground;
  • Hydroacoustic: 11 stations—six hydrophone and five T-phase stations. Hydrophones are underwater while the T-phase stations are onshore on small islands—to monitor the oceans for underwater acoustic waves;
  • Infrasound: 60 infrasound stations to detect low-frequency sound waves in the atmosphere; 
  • Radionuclide: 80 radionuclide stations that analyze air samples to detect radioactive particles from nuclear explosions in all environments. There are also 16 radionuclide laboratories in 16 countries around the world. The labs provide an independent analysis of particulate samples to corroborate data from radionuclide stations and provide quality control through routine sample analyses.

Overcoming the challenges

Over its initial decade, the IMS faced a host of major challenges. First of all, the station build-up had to take place as rapidly as possible so as to be completed before the Treaty entered into force. Originally, it was estimated that the Treaty would enter into force within a very few years. Thus, the IMS had to be built up to become fully operational within this brief timeframe. Such a tight schedule meant that many innovations had to be developed along the way and incorporated into commercially available equipment.

Over its initial decade, the International Monitoring System faced a host of major challenges, from tight timeframes to technical hurdles.
Auxiliary Seismic Station AS102, Davos, Switzerland

According to Suárez, this newly recruited team “faced the daunting task of building up the global IMS network of 321 stations and 16 laboratories within three years”.

The year 1997 marked the launch of this technologically sophisticated worldwide network. The challenges spanned the spectrum—from technical to logistical to political—but steady progress was made. For example,

Extreme care must be taken not to disturb natural habitats.

Technical challenges

  • Many of 120 auxiliary seismic stations either did not exist in 1997 or fell short of the IMS’s stringent technical requirements. These stations had to be constructed and/or upgraded.
  • The hydroacoustic technology was enhanced by placing three sensors in a triangular array, which has shown its benefit in the ability to identify with greater accuracy the source of detected acoustic waves.
  • The infrasound technology for the atmosphere took the longest to design. Expertise in this field was rare at the time. It was a difficult task to identify and interpret atmospheric acoustic events. But progress was made, thanks to collaboration with numerous research institutions. The design of 7-8-element stations with pipe arrays to reduce disturbing noise was finally selected as the most appropriate design.
The noble gas system was the only one of the four technologies to follow the classical path of design, test and implementation.
Radionuclide station 33, Schauinsland, Germany
  • The radionuclide network was the first of its kind to be created on a global scale. Robust equipment had to be designed to operate reliably in remote and isolated locations where technical expertise was scarce. Both hardware and software had to be adapted or newly developed to meet CTBT specifications.
  • The training of station operators, particularly crucial for radionuclide stations, represented yet another challenge. These hands-on operators, many of them working in remote locations throughout the world, form the functional backbone of the IMS.
  • The noble gas system, that would equip 40 of the 80 radionuclide stations, was the only one to follow the classical path of design, test and implementation. Since no instrument existed that met IMS specifications, four different systems—a French, Swedish, Russian and an American one—were developed through an International Noble Gas Experiment (INGE). These are now being tested at selected IMS stations, but only three of the systems are still in use: the French, the Swedish and the Russian.
Most members of the initial 1997 IMS team were new to the world of multilateral diplomacy—and new to each other—when they began.
Construction teams often worked in remote and isolated locations

 Logistical challenges

  • Construction teams often worked in remote and isolated locations where technical expertise was scarce.
  • The IMS team had to forge numerous alliances (e.g. with Working Group B delegates and host countries of IMS stations) and to establish agreements with parent networks.
  • It was both logistically and technically challenging to design procedures to send sensitive samples from radionuclide stations to IMS network laboratories for evaluation.

Political/adminstrative challenges

Most members of the initial 1997 IMS team were new to the world of multilateral diplomacy—and new to each other, coming from nine different countries and quite diverse backgrounds as they did.

It was necessary to obtain permission to initiate site surveys and start construction of IMS stations in selected countries. Bilateral facility agreements with all host countries of IMS stations—which granted the CTBTO the legal and administrative authority to work on State territory to establish, upgrade or provisionally operate and maintain monitoring stations—proved a very time-consuming process as they usually required parliamentary approval.

Although not a technical matter, it also fell to the IMS to procure the required letters authorizing station build-up during the period in which the facility agreement was still being negotiated.

During the early “frantic and hectic days” of the IMS build-up from scratch, the work proceeded at “breakneck pace”, according to Ramaker. Even though “the tasks and challenges seemed to be endless,” as Suárez saw it, progress was supported by a rapidly growing budget.

During the early “frantic and hectic days” of the IMS’s initial build-up, the work proceeded at “breakneck pace”.
Radionuclide station 73, Palmer station, Antarctica

Thus, the IMS was able to finalize the largest number of site surveys possible to be prepared for an accelerated implementation programme when the CTBT approached entry into force.

To learn more about the build-up of the IMS system over the last decade and to get a personal account of yesterday’s and today’s situation and challenges for the IMS, see the interview with Don Phillips, who managed different aspects of the IMS build-up from 1999-2008.

See also IMS: The poineering years by Gerardo Suàrez