A cluster of humble tin sheds carves a lone figure on the Australian outback landscape.
At first glance, it could be mistaken for a farmyard but its purpose is grander than its appearance.
Warramunga Station is part of a high-tech global network detecting and monitoring nuclear tests around the globe, most recently by North Korea.
The 20-kilometre array of seismometers is located in the centre of the Northern Territory, hundreds of kilometres from Alice Springs, and operated by Canberra’s Australian National University (ANU).
Associate Professor Hrvoje Tkalcic, who heads the project for the ANU, said the array can detect even weak tremors on the other side of the world.
“Warramunga is one of the highest quality sites globally,” he said.
“It is probably the highest quality in the Northern Hemisphere summer, there is another similar station in Canada, but it gets quite noisy in the summer time due to the ice cracking.”
The array is funded by the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty Organisation which is headquartered in Vienna.
“At that point, we can make some very basic estimates on the location, on the size and on the radiation pattern,” Professor Tkalcic said.
Scientists in Vienna analyse the data from Warramunga and dozens of other detecting stations around the world.
‘Challenging but rewarding’
Sam Rayapaty spent five years at Warramunga Station as a technical officer making sure the station was operational 24 hours a day.
Technicians spend much of their time trying to keep the equipment safe from extreme weather, including severe flooding and bushfires.
“It’s definitely tough, challenging conditions out there but it’s definitely rewarding, the amount of experience that we accumulate is really not measurable,” he said.
“During the wet season that’s the season when all the instruments fall and break.”
It is also necessarily lonely, as human activity disrupts any monitoring.
“It is very remote and isolating conditions, I really challenged myself to work in those conditions,” he said.
The technicians are on the frontline, seeing the data in real time.
“It definitely is scary,” Mr Rayapaty said.
“Before it goes to the analysts we see that data and it always gives us goosebumps,
“I always believe that we are doing something which is towards promoting peace for the world.”
‘One of the largest tests ever performed’
Professor Tkalcic said the latest test by North Korea on September 3 was about 12 times larger than the one carried out in September last year.
“It’s getting close to the largest test ever performed,” he said.
North Korea has carried out six nuclear tests since 2006.
The array also detects earthquakes and feeds data to ANU scientists who study the earth’s core.
“What we detect is ground movement,” Professor Tkalcic said.
“We can detect a range of events, from natural phenomena such as earthquakes, we can detect meteorite impacts, we can also detect storms in the Southern Ocean.”
But its primary purpose remains to help keep the world safe from nuclear weapons.
“The whole point of arrays like Warramunga is to detect weak signals to essentially prevent clandestine testing,” he said.