Cold War and Peace

By Noor Ghouse

I was overly eager when invited to join my colleagues on a trip to the Leonard Geophysical Observatory in early February. I was more than willing to help clean up and close up the old geophysical lab if it meant being able to see a piece of OGS history and what the seismic lab used to be. I didn’t know much about the Observatory besides the fact that it was closed a year before I started working at the Survey, so my curiosity piqued when I was given the opportunity to help pack up the seismic records that were collected since the facility was opened in 1960.

We arrived at the Observatory and were invited by brisk air, sunny skies, and two big Russian signs saying GLASNOST ROAD on one, and OBSERVATORY LANE on the other.

Isaac (6’9) for scale

As someone who knew little to nothing about the Observatory, you could imagine the follow up questions that came after seeing this.

“What’s up with the Russian letters?”

“Why are there Russian letters?”

“Is it just a coincidence that the sign is red?”

“Can I tear down this sign … and display it in my kitchen?”

Oh yeah, did I mention I love history almost as much as I love seismology? I had a feeling this was going to be one of my favorite field trips.

One of my colleagues, Ted, explained why the signs were there:

In June 1990, President George H. W. Bush and President Mikhail Gorbachev signed a protocol that called for building a Soviet Nuclear Monitoring site near the Observatory in order to record seismic waves from American and British underground nuclear blasts being tested in Nevada. Seven Years later, the Soviets (now Russians) left the site after the RUS-UK-US Nuclear testing ended.

The Unity Tree (left) adjacent to the Russian Building

Pretty cool, right?!?! The Russians even planted a Redbud tree to display openness (glasnost) between the US and Russians, which is rightfully called … the Unity Tree!

After taking a few pictures by the Russian signs and being told they were going to stay bolted on for preservation, I started walking towards the main white building. As I approached the building, I was able to get a peek at what lied inside: outdated computer monitors and what seemed to be a huge open office.

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Things I can point out in the Main Room photo: computers, seismometers, maps, desk…

Things I learned about: helicorder that records waveforms on thermal paper

After waiting some time for the site manager to arrive and disable the alarm system, we finally entered the facility and saw the full extent of what was inside, I was in awe of how many gadgets there were … and how I wasn’t familiar with most of them! So, naturally, I had more learning experiences!

The main room of the Observatory was surrounded by old seismic instruments, just like this one, and the more I explored the facility, the more I realized I knew nothing about what an effort it took to locate and analyze waveforms in the past. I was aware of earthquakes previously being analyzed by hand (an era I do not envy one bit), but I didn’t fully grasp the amount of work required.  Before the glory of three-component broadband seismometers (Vertical: Z,Horizontal: N-S,Horizontal: E-W) and getting all the waveform stations live-streamed to your computer with all the data already autolocated and converted into your preferred units, analysts had to check the time themselves, locate the earthquakes by hand from single-component seismometers, and calculate all the parameters (such as distance, depth, location, etc) on their own.

I do not envy my predecessors one bit.

I took the liberty of walking around the main building, leaving no stone unturned, to see what more I could find and understand about how the geophysical lab used to work. The former employees still had personal items left around, from comic strips, to drawings, to mustard packets. Each room had a seismic/geophysical instrument I’d never seen. And thus, more learning experiences!


People I learned about: Jim Lawson (former Observatory geophysicist 1970-2008)

Jim Lawson started working at the geophysical observatory in 1970, before it was incorporated with the OGS in 1978. He lived on the grounds of the Observatory and dedicated much of his time to the Observatory as well as the Red Cross. Additionally, when Russia and the US signed the protocol in 1990, Jim produced the Russian signs for their visit and made sure the Russians’ stay was as hospitable as possible. He died tragically in 2008 from a car wreck. He is considered a significant part of Oklahoma history, and some of the personalized seismic instruments he used at the observatory can be found at the Bixby Historical Society.

Once I had poked my head into every corner of every room in the main building, I walked outside and joined the rest of the group to figure out when we would start packing up the seismic records. Jefferson (Jack-of-all-trades seismologist) and Isaac started taping up boxes near the seismic building while Jen (education and outreach coordinator) did the inventory in the main building. After lunch, the entire group started bringing boxes into the building with seismic records and instantly figured out that there were too many records and too little space in the back of two trucks.

Action Shot: Brainstorming ideas to get seismic records from the obseratory to Norman.

It was decided that the group pack as much as we could, discuss future plans with the site manager at Leonard, and come back another time with a U-Haul and a few dumpsters to clean out the seismic building.

So we grabbed what we could…


                                                                                                                                   …and hit the road.

As a young scientist, and someone pursuing seismology as a career path, the visit to the Observatory was bittersweet. I was allowed to see how seismology and geophysics research was conducted before the digital age and how methods have progressed substantially. I learned the significant role the Observatory played when it came to history, and how it contributed to building ties towards the end of the Cold War. It not only inspires me, but motivates me to continue my career path, so that I can walk through the halls decades from now and be a part of the progression of geophysical and seismology research.


Noor Ghouse Senior Seismic Analyst


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