Brace Yourselves for the Sixth Seal (Revelation 6)

http://www.ldeo.columbia.edu/news/images/nj-quake-030201.gif

Brace Yourselves, New Yorkers, You’re Due for a Major Quake

A couple of hundred thousand years ago, an M 7.2 earthquake shook what is now New Hampshire. Just a few thousand years ago, an M 7.5 quake ruptured just off the coast of Massachusetts. And then there’s New York.

Since the first western settlers arrived there, the state has witnessed 200 quakes of magnitude 2.0 or greater, making it the third most seismically active state east of the Mississippi (Tennessee and South Carolina are ranked numbers one and two, respectively). About once a century, New York has also experienced an M 5.0 quake capable of doing real damage.

The most recent one near New York City occurred in August of 1884. Centered off Long Island’s Rockaway Beach, it was felt over 70,000 square miles. It also opened enormous crevices near the Brooklyn reservoir and knocked down chimneys and cracked walls in Pennsylvania and Connecticut. Police on the Brooklyn Bridge said it swayed “as if struck by a hurricane” and worried the bridge’s towers would collapse. Meanwhile, residents throughout New York and New Jersey reported sounds that varied from explosions to loud rumblings, sometimes to comic effect. At the funeral of Lewis Ingler, a small group of mourners were watching as the priest began to pray. The quake cracked an enormous mirror behind the casket and knocked off a display of flowers that had been resting on top of it. When it began to shake the casket’s silver handles, the mourners decided the unholy return of Lewis Ingler was more than they could take and began flinging themselves out windows and doors.

Not all stories were so light. Two people died during the quake, both allegedly of fright. Out at sea, the captain of the brig Alice felt a heavy lurch that threw him and his crew, followed by a shaking that lasted nearly a minute. He was certain he had hit a wreck and was taking on water.

A day after the quake, the editors of The New York Times sought to allay readers’ fear. The quake, they said, was an unexpected fluke never to be repeated and not worth anyone’s attention: “History and the researches of scientific men indicate that great seismic disturbances occur only within geographical limits that are now well defined,” they wrote in an editorial. “The northeastern portion of the United States . . . is not within those limits.” The editors then went on to scoff at the histrionics displayed by New York residents when confronted by the quake: “They do not stop to reason or to recall the fact that earthquakes here are harmless phenomena. They only know that the solid earth, to whose immovability they have always turned with confidence when everything else seemed transitory, uncertain, and deceptive, is trembling and in motion, and the tremor ceases long before their disturbed minds become tranquil.”

That’s the kind of thing that drives Columbia’s Heather Savage nuts.

New York, she says, is positively vivisected by faults. Most of them fall into two groups—those running northeast and those running northwest. Combined they create a brittle grid underlying much of Manhattan.

Across town, Charles Merguerian has been studying these faults the old‐fashioned way: by getting down and dirty underground. He’s spent the past forty years sloshing through some of the city’s muckiest places: basements and foundations, sewers and tunnels, sometimes as deep as 750 feet belowground. His tools down there consist primarily of a pair of muck boots, a bright blue hard hat, and a pickax. In public presentations, he claims he is also ably abetted by an assistant hamster named Hammie, who maintains his own website, which includes, among other things, photos of the rodent taking down Godzilla.

That’s just one example why, if you were going to cast a sitcom starring two geophysicists, you’d want Savage and Merguerian to play the leading roles. Merguerian is as eccentric and flamboyant as Savage is earnest and understated. In his press materials, the former promises to arrive at lectures “fully clothed.” Photos of his “lab” depict a dingy porta‐john in an abandoned subway tunnel. He actively maintains an archive of vintage Chinese fireworks labels at least as extensive as his list of publications, and his professional website includes a discography of blues tunes particularly suitable for earthquakes. He calls female science writers “sweetheart” and somehow manages to do so in a way that kind of makes them like it (although they remain nevertheless somewhat embarrassed to admit it).

It’s Merguerian’s boots‐on‐the‐ground approach that has provided much of the information we need to understand just what’s going on underneath Gotham. By his count, Merguerian has walked the entire island of Manhattan: every street, every alley. He’s been in most of the tunnels there, too. His favorite one by far is the newest water tunnel in western Queens. Over the course of 150 days, Merguerian mapped all five miles of it. And that mapping has done much to inform what we know about seismicity in New York.

Most importantly, he says, it provided the first definitive proof of just how many faults really lie below the surface there. And as the city continues to excavate its subterranean limits, Merguerian is committed to following closely behind. It’s a messy business.

Down below the city, Merguerian encounters muck of every flavor and variety. He power‐washes what he can and relies upon a diver’s halogen flashlight and a digital camera with a very, very good flash to make up the difference. And through this process, Merguerian has found thousands of faults, some of which were big enough to alter the course of the Bronx River after the last ice age.

His is a tricky kind of detective work. The center of a fault is primarily pulverized rock. For these New York faults, that gouge was the very first thing to be swept away by passing glaciers. To do his work, then, he’s primarily looking for what geologists call “offsets”—places where the types of rock don’t line up with one another. That kind of irregularity shows signs of movement over time—clear evidence of a fault.

Merguerian has found a lot of them underneath New York City.

These faults, he says, do a lot to explain the geological history of Manhattan and the surrounding area. They were created millions of years ago, when what is now the East Coast was the site of a violent subduction zone not unlike those present now in the Pacific’s Ring of Fire.

Each time that occurred, the land currently known as the Mid‐Atlantic underwent an accordion effect as it was violently folded into itself again and again. The process created immense mountains that have eroded over time and been further scoured by glaciers. What remains is a hodgepodge of geological conditions ranging from solid bedrock to glacial till to brittle rock still bearing the cracks of the collision. And, says Merguerian, any one of them could cause an earthquake.

You don’t have to follow him belowground to find these fractures. Even with all the development in our most built‐up metropolis, evidence of these faults can be found everywhere—from 42nd Street to Greenwich Village. But if you want the starkest example of all, hop the 1 train at Times Square and head uptown to Harlem. Not far from where the Columbia University bus collects people for the trip to the Lamont‐Doherty Earth Observatory, the subway tracks seem to pop out of the ground onto a trestle bridge before dropping back down to earth. That, however, is just an illusion. What actually happens there is that the ground drops out below the train at the site of one of New York’s largest faults. It’s known by geologists in the region as the Manhattanville or 125th Street Fault, and it runs all the way across the top of Central Park and, eventually, underneath Long Island City. Geologists have known about the fault since 1939, when the city undertook a massive subway mapping project, but it wasn’t until recently that they confirmed its potential for a significant quake.

In our lifetimes, a series of small earthquakes have been recorded on the Manhattanville Fault including, most recently, one on October 27, 2001. Its epicenter was located around 55th and 8th—directly beneath the original Original Soupman restaurant, owned by restaurateur Ali Yeganeh, the inspiration for Seinfeld’s Soup Nazi. That fact delighted sitcom fans across the country, though few Manhattanites were in any mood to appreciate it.

The October 2001 quake itself was small—about M 2.6—but the effect on residents there was significant. Just six weeks prior, the city had been rocked by the 9/11 terrorist attacks that brought down the World Trade Center towers. The team at Lamont‐Doherty has maintained a seismic network in the region since the ’70s. They registered the collapse of the first tower at M 2.1. Half an hour later, the second tower crumbled with even more force and registered M 2.3. In a city still shocked by that catastrophe, the early‐morning October quake—several times greater than the collapse of either tower—jolted millions of residents awake with both reminders of the tragedy and fear of yet another attack. 9‐1‐1 calls overwhelmed dispatchers and first responders with reports of shaking buildings and questions about safety in the city. For seismologists, though, that little quake was less about foreign threats to our soil and more about the possibility of larger tremors to come.

Remember: The Big Apple has experienced an M 5.0 quake about every hundred years. The last one was that 1884 event. And that, says Merguerian, means the city is overdue. Just how overdue?

“Gee whiz!” He laughs when I pose this question. “That’s the holy grail of seismicity, isn’t it?”

He says all we can do to answer that question is “take the pulse of what’s gone on in recorded history.” To really have an answer, we’d need to have about ten times as much data as we do today. But from what he’s seen, the faults below New York are very much alive.

“These guys are loaded,” he tells me.

He says he is also concerned about new studies of a previously unknown fault zone known as the Ramapo that runs not far from the city. Savage shares his concerns. They both think it’s capable of an M 6.0 quake or even higher—maybe even a 7.0. If and when, though, is really anybody’s guess.

“We literally have no idea what’s happening in our backyard,” says Savage.

What we do know is that these quakes have the potential to do more damage than similar ones out West, mostly because they are occurring on far harder rock capable of propagating waves much farther. And because these quakes occur in places with higher population densities, these eastern events can affect a lot more people. Take the 2011 Virginia quake: Although it was only a moderate one, more Americans felt it than any other one in our nation’s history.

That’s the thing about the East Coast: Its earthquake hazard may be lower than that of the West Coast, but the total effect of any given quake is much higher. Disaster specialists talk about this in terms of risk, and they make sense of it with an equation that multiplies the potential hazard of an event by the cost of damage and the number of people harmed. When you take all of those factors into account, the earthquake risk in New York is much greater than, say, that in Alaska or Hawaii or even a lot of the area around the San Andreas Fault.

Merguerian has been sounding the alarm about earthquake risk in the city since the ’90s. He admits he hasn’t gotten much of a response. He says that when he first proposed the idea of seismic risk in New York City, his fellow scientists “booed and threw vegetables” at him. He volunteered his services to the city’s Office of Emergency Management but says his original offer also fell on deaf ears.

“So I backed away gently and went back to academia.”

Today, he says, the city isn’t much more responsive, but he’s getting a much better response from his peers.

He’s glad for that, he says, but it’s not enough. If anything, the events of 9/11, along with the devastation caused in 2012 by Superstorm Sandy, should tell us just how bad it could be there.

He and Savage agree that what makes the risk most troubling is just how little we know about it. When it comes right down to it, intraplate faults are the least understood. Some scientists think they might be caused by mantle flow deep below the earth’s crust. Others think they might be related to gravitational energy. Still others think quakes occurring there might be caused by the force of the Atlantic ridge as it pushes outward. Then again, it could be because the land is springing back after being compressed thousands of years ago by glaciers (a phenomenon geologists refer to as seismic rebound).

“We just have no consciousness towards earthquakes in the eastern United States,” says Merguerian. “And that’s a big mistake.”

Adapted from Quakeland: On the Road to America’s Next Devastating Earthquake by Kathryn Miles, published by Dutton, an imprint of Penguin Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House, LLC. Copyright © 2017 by Kathryn Miles.

India Tests Another Nuclear Missile

India Tests Nuclear Capable Short-Range Ballistic Missile

India successfully test fired a nuclear-capable Agni-I ballistic missile on February 6.

Franz-Stefan Gady

India’s Strategic Forces Command (SFC) test fired an Agni-I short-range nuclear capable ballistic missile from the Integrated Test Range (ITR) at the Dr Abdul Kalam Island in the Bay of Bengal off the coast of Odisha on February 6.

The launch was part of the SFCs annual training cycle to test the operational readiness of India’s missile force. The Agni-I was fired at 8:30 a.m. local time from a transporter erector launcher. According to defense sources speaking to local media, the launch was “a complete success” as all main test objectives were met.

“The trajectory of the trial was tracked by a battery of sophisticated radars, telemetry observation stations, electro-optic instruments and naval ships right from its launch till the missile hit the target area with pin point accuracy,” sources said. The Agni-I, fitted with an accurate inertial navigation system, was last successfully test fired on November 22, 2017.

The single-state, solid fuel missile, developed by India’s Defense Research and Development Organization (DRDO), was first introduced into service in 2004. It has an operational range of 700-900 kilometers and can alternatively be armed with a 1,000-kilogram conventional or nuclear warhead.

The SFC currently fields around 75 Agni-I launchers, although the number of operational missiles is likely to be higher.

The missile is part of India’s credible minimum deterrence doctrine and has been developed to offset Pakistan’s burgeoning nuclear missile arsenal. India has a No First-Use (NFU) policy and keeps its nuclear warheads de-mated from the actual missiles. India is estimated to possess 120-130 nuclear warheads.

Last month, India successfully test fired its most advanced nuclear-capable intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM), the Agni-V. As I reported:

The Agni-V, a three-stage solid fueled missile, has an approximate range of 5,500-5,800 kilometers [the exact range remains classified], and can carry a 1,500-kilogram (3,300-pound) nuclear warhead. India has reportedly also been working on multiple independently targetable reentry vehicles (MIRV) for the Agni-V in order to ensure a credible second-strike capability.

The missile is designed to provide a credible nuclear deterrent against China.

India has also made progress on establishing the the sea leg of its strategic deterrent triad. In December 2017, the second Arihant-class nuclear-powered ballistic missile submarine (SSBN), the future INS Arighant, was launched. The new SSBN will be able to carry up to eight K-4 missiles, an intermediate-range nuclear-capable submarine-launched ballistic missile (SLBM).

The first-of-class INS Arihant spent ten months out of action last year due a hatch mistakenly left sealed near the rear of the hull, which allowed salt water to enter the subs’ nuclear propulsion compartment.

(My colleagues Ankit Panda and Prashanth Parameswaran discussed recent developments with India’s nuclear forces in a podcast.)

North Korea soon ready to strike Babylon the Great

North Korea ‘months away’ from ability to hit U.S. with nuclear weapon: U.S. envoy

Stephanie Nebehay In this 2016 photo, a man in Seoul, South Korea, watches a TV news program showing a file image of a missile launch conducted by North Korea.

GENEVA — North Korea is only months away from obtaining the capability to hit U.S. territory with a nuclear weapon and must be disarmed, a U.S. envoy said on Tuesday, dismissing Pyonyang’s diplomatic thaw with South Korea as a “charm offensive” that fooled no one.

In a diplomatic showdown at a U.N.-sponsored Conference on Disarmament, North Korea responded by blaming Washington for escalating confrontation, saying it was deploying nuclear assets including aircraft carriers near the divided peninsula and was considering a pre-emptive strike against Pyongyang.

North Korea has accelerated its provocative pursuit of nuclear weapons and missile capabilities, and expressed explicit threats to use nuclear weapons against the United States and its allies in the region,” U.S. disarmament ambassador Robert Wood told the Geneva forum.

“North Korean officials insist that they will not give up nuclear weapons, and North Korea may now be only months away from the capability to strike the United States with nuclear-armed ballistic missiles,” he said.

A new U.S. nuclear policy review outlined last week “reaffirms that North Korea’s illicit nuclear program must be completely, verifiably, and irreversibly eliminated, resulting in a Korean Peninsula free of nuclear weapons,” he said.

Asked later what the basis was for the assessment that North Korea would soon be able to hit the United States with a nuclear weapon, he said he had “no new information to share.”

North Korea tested its first intercontinental ballistic missile, the Hwasong-14, twice last July. In November it tested the Hwasong-15, believed to be capable of reaching the continental United States. It is not yet believed to have the capability to mount a nuclear warhead on a ballistic missile.

North Korea is under tightening U.N. Security Council sanctions for its banned nuclear and ballistic missile programs. But recent weeks have seen a thaw with South Korea, after Pyongyang agreed to send athletes to compete in the Olympic Games opening on Friday in the South.

“CHARM OFFENSIVE”

“What I would call ‘the charm offensive’ frankly is fooling no one,” Wood told the talks.

He also said arsenals in China and Russia were expanding, drawing rebukes from their respective delegations.

Russia, China and North Korea are growing their stockpiles, increasing the prominence of nuclear weapons in their security strategies, and — in some cases — pursuing the development of new nuclear capabilities to threaten other peaceful nations,” Wood said.

“We are not going to stick our head in the sand, we are going to respond to these growing challenges,” he later told reporters.

North Korea accused the United States of seeking to aggravate the situation on the divided peninsula by “deploying large nuclear assets” nearby, laying the ground for a possible pre-emptive strike against it.

“In view of the nature and scale of U.S. military reinforcements, they are designed to make a pre-emptive strike against the DPRK,” North Korean diplomat Ju Yong Chol told the talks, referring to his country’s official name, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.

“U.S. officials including the defense secretary and the CIA director repeatedly talked about DPRK nuclear and missile threat to justify their argument for a military option and a new concept of a so-called ‘bloody nose,’ a limited pre-emptive strike on the DPRK is under consideration within the U.S. administration,” Ju said.

He said President Donald Trump’s “America First” doctrine and U.S. nuclear superiority would endanger global peace and security and “trigger off a new nuclear arms race and could bring the whole world close to a horrible catastrophe.”

Reporting by Stephanie Nebehay; editing by Matthew Mpoke Bigg and Peter Graff

Trump is the Joker in the Game of Nuclear Poker

Donald Trump Is Playing a Dangerous Game of Nuclear Poker

W.J. HenniganFeb. 1, 2018

More Players. Looser rules. Everything at stake

At a vast tract of uninhabited desert in southern Nevada, hundreds of moonlike craters dimple the wasteland, remnants of Cold War nuclear explosions that melted the bedrock and fused the sand to ensure that America could take part in the unthinkable: global thermonuclear war. The crowds of scientists and generals are long gone–the U.S. hasn’t tested a nuke since 1992, when then President George H.W. Bush declared a self-imposed testing moratorium. But the Nevada National Security test site is not completely abandoned. A skeleton crew of custodians oversees the long dormant facility, less than 90 miles northwest of Las Vegas, standing by to turn the lights back on if the day ever comes.

It may come sooner than many thought.

Since 1993, the Department of Energy has had to be ready to conduct a nuclear test within two to three years if ordered by the President. Late last year, the Trump Administration ordered the department to be ready, for the first time, to conduct a short-notice nuclear test in as little as six months.

That is not enough time to install the warhead in shafts as deep as 4,000 ft. and affix all the proper technical instrumentation and diagnostics equipment. But the purpose of such a detonation, which the Administration labels “a simple test, with waivers and simplified processes,” would not be to ensure that the nation’s most powerful weapons were in operational order, or to check whether a new type of warhead worked, a TIME review of nuclear-policy documents has found. Rather, a National Nuclear Security Administration official tells TIME, such a test would be “conducted for political purposes.”

The point, this and other sources say, would be to show Russia’s Vladimir Putin, North Korea’s Kim Jong Un, Iran’s Ayatullah Ali Khamenei and other adversaries what they are up against.

President Trump has not ordered such a test, but even the consideration of a show of force–by the nation that announced the atomic age by dropping nuclear weapons on Japanese cities in August 1945–marks a provocative shift from the sober, almost mournful restraint that has characterized the U.S. posture toward the weapons for decades. To prevent nuclear war and the spread of weapons to non-nuclear states, the strategy of Republican and Democratic Commanders in Chief alike has been to reduce nuclear arsenals and forge new arms-control agreements.

The Trump Administration, by contrast, is convinced that the best way to limit the spreading nuclear danger is to expand and advertise its ability to annihilate its enemies. In addition to putting the Nevada testing ground on notice, he has signed off on a $1.2 trillion plan to overhaul the entire nuclear-weapons complex. Trump has authorized a new nuclear warhead, the first in 34 years. He is funding research and development on a mobile medium-range missile. The new weapon, if tested or deployed, would be prohibited by a 30-year-old Cold War nuclear-forces agreement with Russia (which has already violated the agreement). And for the first time, the U.S. is expanding the scenarios under which the President would consider going nuclear to “significant non-nuclear strategic attacks,” including major cyberattacks.

We must modernize and rebuild our nuclear arsenal, hopefully never having to use it, but making it so strong and powerful that it will deter any acts of aggression,” Trump said on Jan. 30 during his State of the Union address. “Perhaps someday in the future there will be a magical moment when the countries of the world will get together to eliminate their nuclear weapons. Unfortunately, we are not there yet.”

The rapid strategic changes have been matched by Trump’s norm-breaking rhetoric. Previously, every U.S. Administration since Dwight D. Eisenhower’s had avoided referring to the prospect of launching nuclear war and explicitly maintained, advanced or defended treaties designed to limit the spread of nuclear arms. Trump has openly threatened to unleash “fire and fury like the world has never seen,” and has been hostile toward international agreements. He reportedly called for more, not fewer, nuclear weapons in a July 20 Pentagon briefing, where military advisers were upbraided for presenting global reductions in nuclear stockpiles as progress.

Trump has criticized New START, which reduces and limits nuclear arms in the U.S. and Russia, as a bad deal. He has repeatedly questioned the multilateral deal under which Iran suspended its nuclear program, and promised to decertify it in May if changes aren’t made. He has publicly undermined Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s diplomatic talks aimed at denuclearizing the Korean Peninsula, instead warning North Korea about his “much bigger & more powerful” nuclear button. “The long-standing strategic policy of the United States has been to reduce the role and number of nuclear weapons,” says Andrew Weber, who spent 30 years on nuclear-weapons issues in the State and Defense departments before retiring in 2015. “That idea seems to have been balled up and thrown out the window.”

The Trump team says it is responding to bad policy by past Administrations that left the U.S. vulnerable as other countries broke their word, and non-nuclear countries decided to pursue the weapons. “The President hates bad deals,” one senior Administration official tells TIME. “There’s a view of arms control as an intrinsic good, per se. Any agreement is a good agreement. That’s not where we are.” Aggressively responding to violations of treaties, launching new nuclear-weapons programs and reminding the world about the power of the U.S. nuclear arsenal, officials say, is the best way to deter others from expanding, or seeking, arsenals.

Foreign nations have issued dire warnings in response. China’s Ministry of National Defense in January urged the Trump government to abandon a “Cold War” mind-set, and view matters more “rationally and objectively.” Russian President Vladimir Putin in December accused the U.S. of violating a landmark Cold War–era nuclear arms deal and carrying out an aggressive military policy that “seriously affects security in Europe and in the whole world.” Both China and Russia are upgrading their nuclear weapons. Other nuclear powers, such as North Korea, Pakistan, India and Israel, continue to build new systems.

Rather than dissuading such efforts, arms-control experts from both political parties say, Trump’s moves will accelerate them. A new nuclear-arms race would not be limited to two superpowers seeking strategic balance in a Cold War but would include many nations, including foes in regions where hot wars are a regular occurrence.

The new arms race has already begun,” says former Defense Secretary William Perry. “It’s different in nature than the one during the Cold War, which focused on quantity and two superpowers producing absurd numbers of weapons. Today it is focused on quality and involves several nations instead of just two. The risk for nuclear conflict today is higher than it was during the Cold War.”

The Trump administration is planning to take a step toward developing a new generation of nuclear weapons this month in its Nuclear Posture Review, a strategy document for the U.S. nuclear arsenal. Since the end of the Cold War, the U.S. has not designed any new nuclear weapons as it and Russia have worked to scale back their strategic arsenals. A draft proposal of the 64-page document, published in January by the Huffington Post, included two new sea-launched weapons, one outfitted with a small atomic warhead for battlefield use.

The new warhead, known as a tactical nuclear weapon, would be delivered by a submarine-launched missile against an advancing army. It differs from a strategic weapon, which is designed to destroy cities and hardened military targets. America needs battlefield nukes, the Trump team says, to match and deter adversaries’ tactical arsenals. In an escalating fight with Russia or China, the U.S. military could engage in a “limited nuclear war” rather than leveling whole cities with strategic weapons. Air Force General Paul Selva, vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, tells TIME the President needs options. Trump and his successors should not face a choice between killing millions of civilians or backing down, he says. “It makes people uncomfortable to hear about nuclear war–fighting and presenting options to the President, whomever that person might be,” Selva says. “Strategic stability in the world between our nuclear competitors and our nuclear peers has been assumed. It is not a birthright.”

Trump’s new plan also expands the President’s “first use” of nuclear weapons to circumstances that include “non-nuclear strategic attacks” against the U.S. or its allies. That could mean cyberattacks on nuclear command and control systems or civilian infrastructure, like the electricity grid or air-traffic-control system, arms-control experts have concluded. Previous Administrations limited the threat of a nuclear response to mass-casualty events, like chemical- and biological-weapon attacks. Stephen Schwartz, a nuclear weapons policy expert, said the key concern is the expansion of the nuclear umbrella to “include these new and not extreme possibilities, thus dramatically lowering the threshold for nuclear use.”

The Trump plan also takes a new, skeptical approach to nuclear arms-control agreements. In the 2018 Pentagon budget, Trump included funding for the development of a new missile. If tested or deployed, the missile would violate a 30-year-old arms-control pact with Russia, the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty. Unlike his predecessors, Trump is directly confronting Russia’s prior violation of the treaty, says David Trachtenberg, Defense Undersecretary for Policy, who helped oversee the new plan. “The world is not as benign as some hoped it would be,” he says.

Trump’s nuclear moves, rolled out in policy papers and secret briefings over the past year, have garnered responses abroad ranging from quiet concern to outrage.

On Nov. 8, nearly five weeks before Trump approved research on the new missile, Secretary of Defense James Mattis assembled the defense ministers of the member-countries of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, the 29-nation alliance that contained and defeated the Soviet Union in the Cold War. Convened inside a secure conference room under NATO’s highest security classification, known ominously as “Cosmic Top Secret,” the Mattis briefing laid out the American intelligence case indicating Russia’s violation of the INF treaty.

U.S. intelligence agencies had captured overhead imagery and additional information that Moscow had for years been testing a treaty-violating cruise missile at the Kapustin Yar rocket-launch test site in western Russia, Pentagon sources tell TIME. Now the missile had been deployed with two different Russian military units, putting European capitals at risk. The weapon was derisively nicknamed the SSC-8 “Screwdriver” by NATO analysts because “Russia used it to screw us,” say former U.S. officials.

A Cold War test in March 1953 in Nevada showed the impact of a 16-kiloton, tower-detonated nuclear warhead
The Russian cruise missile that violated the treaty could be launched without giving allies much advance time to determine what was coming their way. Leaders would have to quickly discern the blip on their radar screens and decide whether to respond in kind. The INF agreement, signed by President Ronald Reagan and Soviet Union leader Mikhail Gorbachev in December 1987, was the only nuclear arms-control agreement to eliminate a class of nuclear weapons. It forced the superpowers to scrap more than 2,600 missiles with ranges of about 310 to 3,420 miles–weapons considered destabilizing to Europe because they could deliver a nuclear strike in less than 10 minutes.

But if Europeans were concerned about Russia’s violation of the accord, they feared that the Trump Administration’s response would distract from it, said Kingston Reif, director for disarmament and threat reduction policy at the Arms Control Association. The last thing Europeans want is Moscow and Washington launching a new arms race in Europe. “There is no indication that NATO supports a new [missile], and attempting to force it upon the alliance would be incredibly divisive,” Reif says. “It is thus a weapon to nowhere.” Three days after Trump signed the defense bill, NATO issued a statement touting the INF treaty as “crucial to Euro-Atlantic security” and reiterated that “full compliance” was essential. NATO also called on Russia “to address these concerns in a substantial and transparent way.”

Arguments over U.S.-Russia nuclear deployments are not new. Strategists have long disagreed about whether to counter Moscow’s nuclear threat with escalation or restraint. It’s a high-stakes game of nuclear poker. The Trump Administration, in its aggressive approach, is betting on coercion. “We have to have this strong stance in order to get Russia to return to the negotiating table,” says Laura Cooper, a top Pentagon Russia expert. “But we are not throwing out the treaties that have served us so well in the past decades.”

If they can’t fix INF, officials tell TIME, the Trump Administration is not willing to engage on future arms agreements with Russia. That’s a particular problem, because New START, a linchpin arms-control agreement, will expire in three years. The 2010 deal limits each side to 1,550 deployed nuclear warheads. If it sunsets, it will be the first time the effort to limit the strategic stockpiles in the U.S. and Russia has lapsed since 1991.

Former U.S. Senators Sam Nunn and Richard Lugar, whose bipartisan partnership was crucial to gaining ratification of nuclear-weapons treaties in the chaotic years following the Cold War, fear an end to arms control altogether. “We have severe erosion,” Nunn says. “We are going into a period of much greater risk in the nuclear arena.” Says Lugar: “The trend has been moving away from these sorts of international agreements, which is deeply troubling–and frankly dangerous.”

At the same time, the U.S. and Russia are accelerating their spending on nuclear forces. The current U.S. plan would require spending $1.2 trillion to modernize the aging U.S. “nuclear triad” of bombers, submarines and land-based missiles over the next three decades. The U.S. is reinvesting in the labs and factories that produce warheads. While the U.S. nuclear stockpile has been slashed over the past 30 years, the U.S. military has said the remaining arsenal is unmatched.

Russia is in the midst of overhauling its nuclear forces, including new ICBMs, ballistic-missile submarines and modernized heavy bombers. It’s developing a massive RS-28 Sarmat ICBM that boasts countermeasures designed to elude U.S. antimissile systems. It’s also practicing nuclear snap drills that involve missile launches from the air, land and sea.

The rest of the world is not blind to the accelerating U.S.-Russia competition. While the two nations account for nearly 93% of the world’s nuclear arsenal, there are now nine countries with stockpiles. Not only do they have no plans for disarmament, but they aren’t seeking reductions. The number of nuclear weapons in the world has declined since the Cold War, from a peak of about 70,300 in 1986 to 14,550, according to the Federation of American Scientists (FAS). But the pace of reductions has drastically slowed.

Around the globe, the perceived value of acquiring nuclear weapons has gone up, while the repercussions of violating treaties has declined, says Hans Kristensen, director of the nuclear-information project at FAS. “We’re certainly in a dynamic strategic competition where all sides are arming themselves,” he says. “If the dynamic is not stopped and reversed, it will almost inevitably escalate into an arms race. That is in the nature of the beast.”

If Trump undoes the nuclear deal with Iran, analysts fear that Tehran will sprint for a weapon. Its regional rival Saudi Arabia could then develop its own atomic weapon, or import one from close ally Pakistan, which has its own fast-growing nuclear arsenal to counter arch-rival India’s. (Pakistan is building up its stockpile of tactical nuclear weapons.) China now has a nuclear-powered submarine, known as the Jin-class, that gives its military the ability to launch ICBMs from the sea.

Few threats loom larger, or more immediate, for the U.S. than North Korea. Pyongyang has launched a record 23 missiles during 16 tests since Trump took office. It has tested at least six nuclear warheads, and U.S. intelligence believes it has made progress on miniaturizing a nuclear warhead to mount on a missile. The isolated nation’s most recent launch, on Nov. 29, climbed 2,800 miles into outer space, more than 10 times higher than the International Space Station. If that flight path were flattened out, it could have hit New York City, Washington or nearly any other city in America.

Hawaii’s false ballistic missile alert on Jan. 13 was the most visceral reminder yet of what’s at stake. Ballistic missile threat inbound to Hawaii. Seek immediate shelter. This is not a drill, read the emergency-system alert pushed to people’s smartphones statewide. It took 38 minutes to issue an all clear for the mistake; a worker had mistaken a drill for the real thing.

Disarmament experts warn that this is just one of the risks in a new era of brinkmanship. “Trump has not said what the last 10 Presidents have said, which is we will lead on arms-control agreements and nonproliferation issues,” says Thomas M. Countryman, a 35-year career diplomat who retired last year after leading the State Department’s nonproliferation efforts. “I think that is an indication that the importance of appearing masculine is more important than actually reducing the threat of nuclear warfare.”

Philip Coyle, a former test director at the Nevada Test Site, also warned about the chance of miscalculation. “This is a time where we need more thought about where we’ve been and where we’re headed,” he said. “There is little room for error.”

Americans of a certain age will remember the Doomsday Clock maintained by the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists. It expresses the risk of nuclear annihilation as time remaining until midnight. On Jan. 26, citing Trump’s moves, it pushed the second hand 30 seconds forward, the closest Doomsday has loomed since 1953, when the U.S. and Russia first tested hydrogen bombs within months of each other.

This appears in the February 12, 2018 issue of TIME.

The Antichrist’s Men to take over Iraq

Iraq Elections: A Very Divided Political Landscape

By Ibrahim al-Marashi

Iraq’s parliamentary elections, scheduled for May 2018, will serve as the first national referendum since defeating the Islamic State (IS) in 2017. Sectarianism will remain a problem in this election, an endemic dynamic in Iraqi politics since 2003 when Saddam Hussein was overthrown.

Nonetheless, a greater problem, that rarely garners attention in international media and policy circles, will persist: intra-sectarianism.

Observers of the lead-up to the elections will invariably examine the Shia versus Sunni rivalries during the process, but I believe that the most salient dynamic is the division within Iraq’s Shia and Sunni political elites respectively, in addition to intra-Kurdish tensions.

Divisive domestic politics

While sectarianism has contributed to violent conflict and acerbic political discourse in Iraq, the divisions within respective Shia and Sunni political elites have further exacerbated Iraq’s divisive domestic politics, thus hindering the government’s ability to tackle pressing issues such as corruption, reconstruction, and reconciliation necessary for peace building.

This problem, along with tensions between Arab and Kurdish parties in light of the failed Kurdish vote on independence, raises two pressing questions: first, how will the Kurdish parties fare in a national electoral process given their failed independence initiative?

Second, how will voters react to the contentious role of the Shia militias in the electoral process, who – as armed groups – are technically barred from running by the Iraqi constitution?

The answers to these questions will be determined at the ballot box and will decide whether these parties can come to a consensus to tackle Iraq’s looming humanitarian and economic issues.

Beleaguered Arab Sunni coalitions

While the elections are a few months away, Arab Sunni parties have demanded a delay of the polls so as to allow Iraq’s internally displaced peoples sufficient time to return to their homes and cast their votes.

The largest Arab Sunni bloc, the “United” (al-Mutahidoon), have insisted that fair elections can only be held once refugees return to their hometowns. Estimates indicate that at the end of 2017 2.6 million people were still displaced within the country; most of them happen to be Arab Sunni constituents.

The delay has been rebuffed by Iraq’s Supreme Court as well as by Iraq’s incumbent prime minister, Haidar Abadi, since Iraq’s election had already been rescheduled from September 2017 due to the fighting with IS.

Holding the elections on time is one among many issues that Abadi will have to tackle in the lead-up to the polls, contested by a myriad of rival Shia parties.

The Shia coalitions

Since 2003, Iraq’s elections have been based on a list system where votes are cast for electoral alliances rather than politicians directly. Parties tend to form coalitions prior to each election to maximise votes. In the first elections of 2005, almost all the Shia parties ran under a single electoral list, as did the Kurdish parties.

This pattern has collapsed since then. For example, Arab Sunni parties have failed to agree to run under a single list for 2018, further dividing the Arab Sunni vote.

In the lead up to the 2018 vote, Iraq’s rival Shia coalitions included Abadi’s, who will run for reelection as the head of the “Victory of Iraq” (Nasr al-Iraq) bloc, its name capitalising on the Iraqi victory over IS.

Second, former prime minister Nouri al-Maliki is seeking a political comeback since he stepped down in 2014, leading the “State of Law” (Dawlat al-Qanun) coalition.

Third, the Shia militias have fielded candidates in the “Conqueror” (al-Fatih) bloc. Even though the candidates resigned from their militia posts to run in the elections, they will maintain informal connections to their military units, some of which are connected to Iran.

While these candidates were initially slated to run under Abadi’s coalition, this alliance collapsed just a day after its formation. The reasons for the collapse remain opaque, most likely due to disagreements during the closed-door negotiations.

In theory the militia candidates could have realigned with al-Maliki, however, they chose to run independently.

These are just three groupings among a myriad of other established Shia political factions that emerged since 2003, an indication of the divisiveness within Iraq’s Shia political elite.

Rival Kurdish coalitions

The ballot box will also decide the fate of the two traditional Kurdish parties. Will the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) suffer for its leader Massoud Barzani’s failed push for independence for Iraq’s Kurds?

Will the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) suffer for failing to wholeheartedly endorse this effort and its tacit role in allowing the oil-rich city of Kirkuk to revert back to Iraqi government control?

In all reality these parties might suffer for both actions, but will most likely lose votes due to accusations of corruption and failure to create new jobs, issues that have led to a wave of protests in the KRG.

Other Kurdish political parties that will capitalise on this discontent, such as the opposition party “Change” (Gorran), will run with two other KRG opposition parties to form a coalition called “Homeland” (Nishtiman).

It will be interesting to see which party the voters in the contested city of Kirkuk will support. First, the KDP indicated that it will not field candidates in the city, due to its disputed status.

The Kurdish opposition may be able to take advantage of this boycott to augment its voter base there.

Regardless, the fractured Kurdish political landscape, like the Shia political landscape, demonstrates that Kurdish ethnicity is not in and of itself sufficient to unite Iraq’s Kurds, as is the case for sectarian identity among Iraq’s Shia and Arabs.

Some positive indicators

Despite this gloomy prognosis for Iraq’s 2018 electoral cycle, there are some positive signs.

First, it seems possible in Iraq for sectarian parties to reinvent themselves as national movements. The Sadrists, followers of Shia religious leader Muqtada al-Sadr, were implicated in sectarian reprisal killings during the conflict from 2006 to 2008.

In 2018 Al-Sadr announced a joint list with the Iraqi Communist Party, an anomalous example of Islamists uniting with an established secular party.

Second, the questions about the outcome of Iraq’s elections is a reminder that the outcome of the vote is not necessarily pre-determined, a rarity in a region where elections are never held, or whose outcome will be 99.9 percent in favour of the leader-for-life.

Iraq is a flawed democracy, but in relative regional terms, offers some prospects for a new Iraqi government that can capitalise on the defeat of IS and deal with the underlying issues that led to its rise in the first place.

Ibrahim al-Marashi is Associate Professor of Middle East History at California State University San Marcos. His publications include: Iraq’s Armed Forces: An Analytical History (2008), The Modern History of Iraq (2017), and A Concise History of the Middle East (forthcoming).