I'm very interested in a post-eruption setting in the continental United States. Unfortunately, it looks quite unlikely that a serious caldera-forming eruption is in our near future.

However, we're a pretty clever and technologically advanced species. If a certain individual with the proper network and authority was willing to spend up to 100 million USD, would it be possible to intentionally set off a catastrophic caldera-forming eruption to devastate the central United States?

For this question I'm purely interested in whether or not there is a scientifically plausible mechanism by which we could do this. As such, I'm ignoring the reality that a wide-scale apocalyptic operation inside Yellowstone National Park would probably attract the attention of a few 3-letter agencies.

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    $\begingroup$ You may find it interesting, but I still question your use of "unfortunately" :) $\endgroup$
    – user16107
    Apr 29, 2016 at 11:00
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    $\begingroup$ Yellowstone could erupt next year and we would be none the wiser. One of the important factors about yellowstone is it is two orders of magnitude larger than any volcano we have ever seen erupt so we don't know how much warning we would have nor can we predict its likelihood of eruption very well. You could have yellowstone erupt naturally without issue. $\endgroup$
    – John
    Dec 2, 2017 at 23:11

6 Answers 6


The main problem with triggering a Yellowstone eruption would be getting the necessary energy into the system.

One estimate puts a Yellowstone eruption at around 23GT. This corresponds to 460 of the largest nuclear device ever built, the 50MT Tsar Bomba, and that doesn't even begin to address the problem of getting all that energy below ground to the magma reservoir which would have to accumulate all that energy in order for an eruption to occur.

In order to deliver that energy, it would most likely be necessary to drill holes into the rock strata around and beneath the Yellowstone magma reservoir big enough to accommodate three-stage atomic warheads, with all the attendant risks and problems associated with drilling into volcanically active rocks.

I rather think that the presence of hundreds of drilling platforms around Yellowstone, manned with crews dressed in heat-resistant clothing, drilling into volcanically-active rock strata with huge water-cooled tungsten drills in order to emplace atomic devices with yields between 100MT and 10GT, would be very obvious, much too slow to avoid an official response, and considerably more expensive to implement than the stated budget of USD 100,000,000.

If an organisation had access to that kind of money and that much atomic weaponry, then simply distributing and detonating said atomic weaponry would be far quicker, easier and stealthier than trying to nuke Yellowstone into action.


In response to the comments suggesting that atomic devices could be used to somehow create a greater inflow of magma to the Yellowstone geological system, there are several problems with this:

  1. Exactly where do you emplace atomic devices in order to create a greater inflow of magma? How do you get them there without the heat damaging the warhead, since atomic weapons are quite sensitive pieces of equipment, and that much heat could distort or damage them to the point where they'd fizzle? Even if the warhead was insulated, how do you drill to that depth through such hot rock and magma?

    Considering the cross-section of Yellowstone from this page:cross-section of Yellowstone

    Any necessary bore would have to be in excess of 10km deep, more likely 20-25km, and would also have to extend laterally up to 25km. Since the deepest manmade borehole is on the order of 12km, and the temperatures involved would be much higher, this would involve a breakthrough in drilling technology to achieve, since with current technology, this would be considered infeasible.

  2. Assuming that somehow you could calculate just how to nuke the rock below the Yellowstone magma pocket, and actually did so such that it experienced greater inflow of magma, how long would you be prepared to wait for sufficient heat and magma pressure to build up in order to cause an eruption? Unless the atomic devices causing the increase in magma inflow added a quite significant amount of energy to the system themselves, it could still be many months before the desired eruption could take place.

  3. If an eruption at Yellowstone was imminent in geological terms as well as human terms, geologists would have noticed steadily increasing levels of geothermal activity over the previous years. 23GT-worth of geothermal energy doesn't just accumulate overnight or even over the course of a single month. Geologists currently cannot predict the timing of a future eruption given present levels of activity, but if geothermal activity was observed to be increasing, it would be possible for geologists to model from the rate of increase an approximate timing for the eruption, to within a month or so. Since current research indicates that at a minimum it would take at least ten months for the Yellowstone system to accumulate enough energy to erupt, many people would have time to prepare or evacuate.

So, even if we went with a "nuke things to stir things up" rather than a "nuke it into immediate action" approach, it is still most likely completely unfeasible considering the (relatively) small budget the OP specified, and is still probably unfeasible with any budget at the present.

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    $\begingroup$ Why do you assume the bombs have to supply the energy? While I do agree you would need nukes you don't need a whole pile of them, just enough to blast a hole for the lava and let nature take it's course. (It won't do so at full power but there's plenty of power down there!) $\endgroup$ Apr 30, 2016 at 2:58
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    $\begingroup$ @LorenPechtel, have a look at my edit. $\endgroup$
    – Monty Wild
    May 2, 2016 at 0:13
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    $\begingroup$ @MontyWild The magma is already there. Yelllowstone is already overdue for an eruption. The nukes wouldn't be to bring the magma in, but rather to breech the material holding it down. $\endgroup$ May 2, 2016 at 2:26
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    $\begingroup$ @LorenPechtel, the magma might be there, but the necessary energy isn't. At present, the magma is fairly cool, and for an eruption to happen, it needs to be hotter. Considering the volume of magma, that would take a lot of energy. $\endgroup$
    – Monty Wild
    May 2, 2016 at 2:33
  • $\begingroup$ Great answer, thanks for responding to our comments. $\endgroup$
    – user16107
    May 2, 2016 at 10:13

No real way- even if the energy was already there. The problem comes in with Yellowstone's above ground terrain. Most of it is thick forests, marsh, mountains, or a giant lake. What isn't, and is accessable by roads, is largely geyser basins with a very high chance of the ground breaking and falling into boiling hot water if any weight whatsoever is placed on the ground. So.... You are left with a very few areas that are actually accessible by your giant drilling machines. Choosing to ignore the fact that Law Enforcement Rangers would bust your ass in a second for not complying with the park law about studies that are intrusive to the environment done without a permit, you would still have to explain your giant boreholes to the public, not even mentioning the giant herds of wildlife that would get kinda inquisitive as to your destruction of their best habitats, you still would not be able to bring the equipment in over park roads without arousing suspicion with the ranger at the park entrance. The areas that you could access would also not have thin enough crust for you to effectively drill through in time before the government swooped down on you. The only real way I can see it working was if it was a government operation, and they staged a government shutdown in June- giving you the summer to drill your boreholes and plant your nukes.

  • $\begingroup$ Why would it have to be a government operation? Simply wait for the next round of lunacy out of Washington to cause a shutdown, then swoop in and dig your shaft. The hard part is going to be drilling deep enough before the lunacy fades. $\endgroup$ Apr 30, 2016 at 3:01
  • $\begingroup$ Because shutdowns typically occur in winter. With the amount of snowfall the park gets, you wouldn't even be able to get the equipment into the correct spots in time, much less drill the boreholes. $\endgroup$ May 2, 2016 at 12:16

I answered a question about creating an artificial volcanic island recently and I'm going to reuse some of that here.

So the problem you have in both cases is that it really takes the perfect storm to cause an eruption at all and even if you do All the right things, there's no guarantee of if or when an eruption will trigger. That said;

Possible Tactics

  • Nuclear Bomb - This would need to be delivered deep into a theoretical magma well to work. The idea being that the the explosion in the magma will cause it to continue to erupt. This has not been tried, though volcanoes flows have been bombed on several occasions throughout history (Hawaii x3, Etna x1) to no effect.

  • Drilling - The idea behind this is that the by doing so, you would release building pressure causing the magma to flow through the hole created. This actually happens occasionally with current active volcanoes to little effect except some unexpected damage to drilling equipment. The drill hole is just too narrow to transmit the force of an eruption. Most mantle drilling boreholes are only 30cm wide.

  • Water Injection - Magma will also erupt explosively with the addition of outside water, this is what happened with Eyjafjallajökull in 2010. If the right ratio of water-to-magma exists, then the explosive mixing of magma and water can be self-sustaining, meaning that the explosive eruption will continue propagating until the supply of water or magma runs out. However, too little water means that you likely don’t sustain the explosive mixing, too much water and you quench (solidify) too much of the magma.

Practical Application

Think of a volcano as a bottle of champaign. When you pop the cork some less dense liquid is going to rise up until it hits level with the surface - like the lava flows of Kilauea. If you want a properly explosive eruption you want to make bubbles, Lots. You could decompress the magma (forcing gas to leave the solution), you could crystallize minerals to concentrate water and volatiles in the remaining magma or you could heat the magma with a new intrusion. Once you've created bubbles, you need to concentrate them at the top of the magma. Back to our bubbly - think about what happens when you shake that bottle before popping the cork.

So, as Monty Wild has illustrated very well, the Yellowstone caldera is HUGE. To get enough energy pushed into such a huge system to make it volatile is going to be a huge obstacle.

The second is that to have a hope of making something happen, you need a magma well which is already looking ready to pop. This might be high levels of volcanic gases, shallow earthquakes, deformation of the volcano. You want something “primed” to go. While Yellowstone does have a lot of geysers - the book you link states these have no associated volcanism. The Preliminary Assessment of Volcanic and Hydrothermal Hazards in Yellowstone National Park and Vicinity further states that there are also questions over how much magma under Yellowstone is even liquid, how well the liquid that remains is interconnected and is even eruptible. This doesn't make for a great target location to try a man-made eruption.

Putting that aside and assuming that there is a sizable magma well to work with, you would then need to figure out a way to release the lithostatic pressure keeping the “cork” on the volcano so that the bubbles can form and at the same time rig up a way to introduce enough water to create some explosivity.

Delivering a Nuclear Bomb into the magma well doesn't address the pressure issue or remove enough of the overlaying rock matter to release the lithostatic pressure. Drilling into a volcano is too small - like poking a pin hole in a balloon. Both of these options are thinking Far too small.

So, we know what we need to do - but how could we do it?

Lets start with high explosive charges just below the surface of the rock bed to get rid of the land above our magma body. The resulting shaking may even help shake bubbles free in the magma, while more bubbles release due to the release of pressure. If the pressure increases enough the weakened roof may give way above the magma body which would allow decompression. Doing this under Yellowstone Lake would probably be best as it would allow for a means to introduce a large body of water when the roof of the magma well gives way - However, Ideally you would need to find a way to bring water from else where to add to the mix as I suspect that as large as it is, it will not contain enough water to create a meaningful amount of explosive mixing given how much magma is believed to be under Yellowstone. Also, this is all going to take a lot of time and activity which would probably cause questions, protests and all manners of discontent.

Seems like we have a pretty good set up, right? Eh, Kinda. Remember this is all theoretical and no one really knows how long it might take from the trigger of an eruption to get the actual eruption itself. Looking at history, there are no good indications. Mount St Helens (1980) blew seconds after the earthquake and landslide that triggered it. In Chile volcanoes have triggered months to years after the large earthquakes thought to have triggered them. There are many types of triggers which can lead to volcanic eruption and they tend to be unique to each volcano and the geology/geography of the area. furthermore, volcanoes more often than not do not erupt when triggered. Its just really complicated process that we don't really know much about. Its a lot of trouble to go to with no guarantee when or if you'll get the reaction you're hoping so. You might even prevent an eruption rather then speed it along.


Unlike the volcano island scenario, this is really just not feasible. The scale is simply too large to be manageable.


It might be worth noting that there have been concerns raised recently that North Korean subterranean nuclear tests may affect the nearby Mount Paekdu supervolcano.



How realistic these concerns are and exactly what the result would be if they were realized is another question entirely but, in a fictional world, I could imagine a scenario where knowledge of the shape of the magma chamber combined with appropriate placement of some kind of nuclear detonation (or detonations) could trigger such an event.

I recall a plotline where multiple explosions were used to set up a standing wave where positive interference was leveraged to create a significantly amplified shockwave at specific locations.


Throw a big space rock at Yellowstone

though you won't be able to do that for less than $100B. If you'll accept the increase in cost then this will work just fine.

Most of the other answers have addressed such concerns as getting enough energy into the underlying magma to liberate the gases which will go on to provide that oh so satisfying Earth Shattering Kaboom(TM) or how difficult it is to remove enough overburden to reduce the pressure in the magma.

While these are valid concerns for such puny explosions as nukes, they are not concerns for the mind-boggling huge energy releases of asteroid impacts. We don't need anything as huge as Chicxulub since we don't want to puncture the crust, we just want to blow the top off the caldera. Chicxulub is estimated to have penetrated 20Km into Earth's crust which is far too deep. We'll need something with a diameter that that will cover the 55Km (34 miles) by 72Km (44 miles) of the Yellowstone Caldera.

Mjølnir crater looks about right. It's about 40Km (25 miles) in diameter which should do plenty for disrupting the cap. The impacting bolide was a manageable 2Km wide. That's a good size for our needs.

Moving the killer

NASA and ESA are already running programs to find "killer asteroids". With access to that list, one should be able to compile a short list of candidate asteroids. This should save a great deal on the discovery phase.

There's no shortage of theories about how to move a killer asteroid out of Earth's path. That's fine, we'll just appropriate those techniques to move a killer asteroid into Earth's path. This is also where the funding question gets a bit fuzzy. It will likely take years to develop a probe or technique to alter the asteroid's path. Despite SpaceX providing cheap launch services, the probe will likely be pretty heavy.

After rendezvous with the asteroid, the probe will have to figure out the trajectory of the asteroid as accurately as possible. The more precise the better since the target is vanishingly small in astronomic terms.

After figuring out the trajectory and the required inputs to change the asteroid's course, the probe goes about it's deadly, delicate work.

Some years later, KABOOOOMMMM!!!!


Couldn't you just aim for the fault lines cause around Yellowstone's to cause or simulate a earthquake which would cause the magma to shift a crack on it's own. Then allow nature to take it's course. No drilling needed then just math and lots of explosive.

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    $\begingroup$ Welcome to Worldbuilding! Would you be able to expand this to include whether or not it would be possible given the constraints in the question? Or at least give estimates of what it would take (/how much explosives would be required) to cause enough to damage to start this chain of events $\endgroup$ Dec 2, 2017 at 20:44
  • $\begingroup$ Welcome to WorldBuilding! If you have a moment please take the tour and visit the help center to learn more about the site. Have fun! $\endgroup$
    – Secespitus
    Dec 2, 2017 at 21:52

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