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Scientific VIEW

U.S. Keeps Seismic Ear to Soviet Ground


Less than a month ago, geologist Holly Eissler lived in a trailer at a remote seismology field station in Soviet Asia. With temperatures below zero, she was grateful for the white fox-skin hat that her translator, Tamara, procured for her. The hat feels out of place in the lab in La Jolla at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography. So does Eissler, who is still suffering from culture lag, a form of jet lag that is exacerbated by extreme differences in the two societies at either end of the journey.

A native of Oak Park, Ill., Eissler has a degree in physics from the University of Illinois and a doctorate in geology from Caltech. Before her Soviet adventure, her travels had been limited to the United States and Mexico.

A year ago she was playing second base on a Caltech graduate student summer softball team and completing a dissertation on Hawaii's volcanoes. Today she is more familiar with the operation of seismic stations in the Soviet Union than any other scientist in the West.

Eissler, 29, is the only woman in the six-member team headed by Scripps' Jon Berger that has just completed the installation of state-of-the-art seismic monitoring devices in Kazakhstan in the Soviet Union. They represent the National Resources Defense Council in its agreement with the Soviet Academy of Sciences, signed in May, 1986, to set up the equipment to monitor nuclear explosions as part of their Nuclear Test Ban Verification Project. The accord has been called "history's first private-sector peace initiative." It calls for the establishment of three monitoring stations around the test sites in each country, jointly run by American and Soviet scientists.

The agreement was signed during a moratorium on underground nuclear testing, but that moratorium ended this winter. The Soviets responded to the American resumption of tests by exploding a nuclear device on Feb. 26. Although the council's team was not far from the blast, it was not allowed to monitor it. Neither were Soviet scientists. "Seismic data is different in the Soviet Union," Eissler said. "The data is not public property as it is here."

The prohibition was disappointing, Eissler said, but not defeating. Although they had to turn off their monitoring devices for 31 of the 77 days she was there, they accumulated plenty of data. The council has information on earth movements in the Hindu Kush, Iran, Japan and the Philippines as well as data from dynamite explosions in the quarries that dot the region. Eissler said, "With our knowledge of the seismic nature of the area, and with data from the belt of seismic stations around the globe, we can estimate the size of underground nuclear explosions."

She recalled feeling the shock in her bedroom a hundred miles from the blast. "It felt different from an earthquake," and if she had been able to record it, she said that it would have looked different, too. "Nuclear explosions generate more high frequency waves than earthquakes and are immediately distinguishable on our recording devices."

Eissler spent only a few days in Mother Russia, having been whisked off almost immediately to Karalinsk, a town in the Republic of Kazakhstan where the population is largely Muslim of Asian ancestry, and where the villages are built of stone huts and cows meander through the streets.

When not installing instruments in the 300-foot bore holes at the three field stations, or accumulating data, Eissler learned about Soviet life. She was feted, along with her translator and a female computer operator on March 8--International Woman's Day--and presented with white lilies. But Eissler did not meet any other female scientists in positions as senior as her own, and she got the impression that there are not very many. How else can you explain the way that the Soviets kept fussing over her, insisting on carrying her equipment, in contrast to her American colleagues who treated her simply as a co-worker?

When not at the field stations, where they lived in trailers, the team (two remain and Eissler will return in the fall) are ensconced in a small resort hotel in countryside that reminds Eissler of Wyoming, with granite mountains, pine and birch forests and a frozen lake. They ate in a communal dining-room with vacationing Soviets and the Soviet scientists.

Eissler still has one ear in Soviet Asia. The scientists she left behind are keeping track of the data. With an 11-hour time difference, Eissler waits up until close to midnight to send messages by computer to Moscow, which relays them another thousand miles to her colleagues in Kazakhstan.

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