Nuclear sensors detect an extra 1,200 attacks in Ukraine

Seismic sensors could prove critical for monitoring potential international war crimes during the Ukraine-Russia conflict.
Sade Agard
Concept image of a launching ballistic missile.
Concept image of a launching ballistic missile.


Since Russia's invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, the ground beneath Ukraine has trembled, not from natural earthquakes but from the devastating impact of bombings and wartime explosions. 

Now, scientists have harnessed the power of seismic data collected from sensors within Ukraine to track the unfolding events of this conflict in near real-time, offering a clearer picture of the war's impact than ever before.

Their study recently published in Nature demonstrated how seismic sensors, originally designed to detect nuclear explosions, can be repurposed to monitor explosions in an active combat zone. 

This marks the first time such data have been used for this purpose, revealing more than 1,200 massive explosions in the first nine months of the conflict across Kyiv, Zhytomyr, and Chernihiv.

Where are seismic sensors in Ukraine?

The 23 seismic sensors powering this study are located outside Kyiv and are associated with NORSAR (Norwegian Seismic Array). NORSAR initially established itself to utilize seismic data for studying nuclear explosions as part of the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty (CTBT).

These sensors have historically been instrumental in detecting worldwide nuclear tests violating international law. However, they have rarely been positioned so close to an active military conflict.

"We're now seeing that with the right sensors in the right place, there is significant value that seismic and acoustic data can provide for active conflict monitoring," explained lead author Ben Dando, a seismologist at NORSAR, in a PopSci article.

Dando and his team were able to precisely determine the time, location, and intensity of each explosion from the signals recorded by the seismometers.

Nuclear sensors detect an extra 1,200 attacks in Ukraine
Map of automatic seismic detections (circles) between January and November 2022.

These highly sensitive sensors can detect significant impacts, such as those generated by missiles and bombs. 

Although they cannot pick up relatively smaller disturbances like gunfire, their ability to capture substantial explosions is vital in clarifying the fog of war, especially in a region plagued by disinformation and propaganda.

War Crimes in the Ukraine-Russia conflict

Accurate and timely information about battles is crucial for other nations and international watchdog organizations to respond effectively, particularly when international laws may be violated.

Dando emphasized that seismic monitoring can provide valuable insights into how specific locations are targeted and the intensity of the attacks. 

For instance, in June 2023, the Nova Kakhovka dam in Ukraine was destroyed, resulting in widespread flooding and a humanitarian crisis. Ukrainian officials attributed the damage to Russian airstrikes, potentially constituting a war crime under international protocols. 

Seismic data analysis, such as that conducted by Dando and his colleagues, could be pivotal in confirming such incidents and facilitating international responses.

This isn't the first time scientific Earth-monitoring technology has overlapped with a conflict. 

As reported by Interesting Engineering, Capella Space's SAR (Synthetic Radar Aperture) satellites, capable of continuous all-weather Earth monitoring, were previously employed for ongoing conflict surveillance in the Ukraine-Russian war.

In a region plagued by ongoing hostilities and information warfare, the innovative use of seismic sensors offers hope for a clearer understanding of events on the ground.

The complete study was published in Nature and can be found here.

Study abstract:

Seismometers are generally used by the research community to study local or distant earthquakes, but seismograms also contain critical observations from regionaland global explosions, which can be used to better understand conflicts and identify potential breaches of international law. Although seismic, infrasound and hydroacoustic technology is used by the International Monitoring System to monitor nuclear explosions as part of the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty, the detection and location of lower-yield military attacks requires a network of sensors much closer to the source of the explosions. Obtaining comprehensive and objective data that can be used to effectively monitor an active conflict zone therefore remains a substantial challenge. Here we show how seismic waves generated by explosions in northern Ukraine and recorded by a local network of seismometers can be used to automatically identify individual attacks in close to real time, providing an unprecedented view of an active conflict zone. Between February and November 2022, we observed more than 1,200 explosions from the Kyiv, Zhytomyr and Chernihiv provinces, providing accurate origin times, locations and magnitudes. We identify a range of seismoacoustic signals associated with various types of military attack, with the resulting catalogue of explosions far exceeding the number of publicly reported attacks. Our results demonstrate that seismic data can be an effective tool for objective monitoring of a continuing conflict, providing invaluable information about potential breaches of international law.