Detecting earthquakes or bombs - Seismological research in Greenland during the Cold War

    Project: Research

    Project Details


    Part of 'Exploring Greenland - Science and Technology in Cold War Settings'.
    A research project financed by the Carlsberg Foundation 2010-13,
    at Center for Science Studies, Aarhus University
    Seismology, the study of earthquakes and the movement of seismic waves, was little developed before the Cold War and hampered by a lack of methods and standardized instruments. With the spread of nuclear technologies in the 1950s it became a priority of the US military to develop scientific means of detecting nuclear explosions at a long range. Seismology could offer such means since the underground explosions created waves similar to earthquakes. As a result, government funding for seismic research increased dramatically in the USA. Seismologically, Greenland proved a particularly rewarding area for detection purposes due to its low seismic activity.

    The Danish seismic stations in Greenland were all operated by the Seismic Section of the Geodetic Institute, and the small section became the point of contact between the US military-industrial-science complex and Danish seismologists.

    Two areas of research will be investigated under this subproject.
    1. The political role of seismic research in Denmark.
    The politicization of Danish seismological research began as American scientific agencies co-opted the Seismic Section to link Danish seismologists to the American efforts for nuclear arms control. By engaging the seismologists through scholarly cooperation and research projects the Americans sought access to knowledge and localities in Greenland which otherwise would be difficult to obtain.

    The Seismic Section initially accepted the co-opting because it gave some degree of admittance into the growing American seismic research community. It was first in 1961, when Denmark began formulating its own policy for nuclear arms control, that the Seismic Section began questioning the political motives behind the American support. As Danish national policy increasingly directed the research activities at the Section, the relationship between the US military-industrial-science complex and the Section became more politically charged, with each side pursuing its own agenda.

    2. Inge Lehmann and seismic research in the USA.
    From Denmark especially the internationally renowned seismologist Inge Lehmann (1888-1993) became involved in American seismic research. Lehmann had been chief of the Danish seismological department at the Royal Danish Geodetic Institute since 1928, and was in charges of all the seismic stations in Greenland and Denmark. Her excellent scientific skills and her ready access to seismograms from the Greenland stations made her a welcomed guest in American seismic research community. In 1952 she spent several months at the Lamont Geological Observatory; in 1953 she took early retirement from the Royal Danish Geodetic Institute to pursue her own research interests with frequent visits to the USA. She continued her seismic research until the early 1970s.

    As a scientist whose research efforts were deeply entangled with international political agendas, she became an astute first hand witness of the politics of seismology in the USA and elsewhere during the Cold War.
    AcronymExploing Greenland
    Effective start/end date01/01/201029/11/2013


    • Carlsbergfondet


    • seismology
    • Greenland
    • the USA
    • Inge Lehman
    • cold war