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For the sake of convenience, this happens on Earth. However, in this scenario only the American continent (all of it) is inhabited.

One of the countries is experimenting with extremely advanced and extremely hazardous power generation technology, codename project Nova. The Nova facility is located underground somewhere below the Amazonian forest. You can move the facility somewhere else if you need to, just keep it far from any population center. Obviously, the experiment goes horribly wrong.

The experimental reactor ends its life in a blaze of glory, that is to say kaboom. The explosion triggers the biggest earthquake in recorded history. In the wake of the quake and aftershock, there is quite a bit of destruction.

On the surface the damage is extensive but it's nothing that can't be repaired/rebuilt. Below the surface, the quake has shaken the ground so hard the planet will become uninhabitable. When will it happen? The continent will be come uninhabitable in 50 to 100 years, the rest of the planet will eventually be as inhospitable. On the bright side, everybody will get evacuated, so hooray for FTL and unlimited budget.

Anyways, I need a good reason why the planet will become practically uninhabitable.

My thought was that the quake would trigger a chain reaction that would result in increasing seismic and volcanic activity that would eventually shake every building down, block the sun with clouds of dust, and flood the streets with lava. Is that even possible? If not, how can I effectively end the world starting with one big explosion?


I'll clarify on the requirement. The planet doesn't have to be actually uninhabitable. If there's enough casualties and the living conditions become too bad, governments will start looking at their options.

In short, there are three Earth-like planets at different places in the galaxy. FTL technology is limited to one FTL drive of alien origin and one reverse-engineered, almost complete prototype. Both are untested but the technology would be (successful, something has to go right from time to time,) used to evacuate people off. The process would take decades, but would be over before living conditions became too insane.

That option has to be more appealing than whatever will happen if they stay. They don't have the technology to terraform, nor the desire to.

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  • $\begingroup$ If your "Nova facility" wasn't specifically located in the Amazonian forest, I would have said this is pretty simple. You could make the earthquake trigger the Yellowstone Volcano's eruption... But I doubt an Earthquake would be brutal enough to shake the Earth from Amazonia to North America... $\endgroup$ – Nico May 3 '16 at 9:14
  • $\begingroup$ @Nico The location could be changed. $\endgroup$ – AmiralPatate May 3 '16 at 9:16
  • $\begingroup$ Alright I'll write down an answer, developping my suggestion ;) $\endgroup$ – Nico May 3 '16 at 9:17
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    $\begingroup$ Almost related : worldbuilding.stackexchange.com/questions/40936/… $\endgroup$ – Nico May 3 '16 at 14:11
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    $\begingroup$ A strong gravitational tidal force could break up land and continents and cause a molten core, the same as Saturn's moons. Also, the Yellowstone super-volcano could cause a large earthquake. $\endgroup$ – Chloe May 3 '16 at 19:34
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Since you said in the comments that the location can be changed, here is my suggestion :

Move your facility near enough the Yellowstone Park

Your Nova facility is still underground, and the explosion still triggers a massive, MASSIVE earthquake. No need to change that.

This earthquake shatters the moutains, provoking landslides, and ultimately, wakes the Yellowstone Volcano by adding pressure in its inside.

When this volcano explodes, its ashes will spread all over North America, and depending on the winds, maybe all over the world according to some scientists. Lots of studies have been made on a potential Yellowstone catastrophe, I suggest you do a little more research on this topic, but here's what's interesting in this case :

Ashes will blot out the sun for years, killing the crops and harvests, suffocating lots of people / cattle. People won't be able to grow food anymore.

That's where you get you countdown : People will survive as long as they have food stocks. But in about 50 to 100 years, with no food growing anymore, they will die out of hunger. Except if the few survivors can provide food for everyone else, which I highly doubt.

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    $\begingroup$ So scientists, who have at least the knowlegde this could go boom, will neglect a supervolcano that could end the world? Sound like a bit of a plothole. $\endgroup$ – Martijn May 3 '16 at 13:58
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    $\begingroup$ Maybe they do not ignore the supervolcano but are overconfident that the experiment will go well. Kind of a very basic plot, I agree, but I'm not the writer here ;) $\endgroup$ – Nico May 3 '16 at 14:05
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    $\begingroup$ You could actually use the supervolcano as a reason for why it was near Yellowstone park, perhaps to fire up the reactor they need large amounts of geothermal energy which is provided by yellowstone caldera. Or maybe Nova is developing a volcanic geothermal energy generator and it's only viable at the world's largest volcano. You could even have them do small scale tests at smaller volcanos that were not able to generate net positive energy - much like current fusion reactors - which is why they thought the risk was acceptable. $\endgroup$ – Seph May 3 '16 at 14:51
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    $\begingroup$ For the sake of the story, note that a volcano goes boom if you release pressure on the magma chamber, not by increasing it. If the pressure goes down, the magma gasses out, which is what triggers the runaway eruption. Kind of like opening a can of soda. Makes it even easier for an earthquake to trigger a supervolcano like Yellowstone (which is more or less due to blow anyway, give or take some ten thousand years). $\endgroup$ – DevSolar May 3 '16 at 15:07
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    $\begingroup$ I'm not sure that this would actually make the Earth uninhabitable. Bigger supervolcanoes than Yellowstone have erupted without making the world uninhabitable in relatively recent history. Even the biggest recent eruption, which formed Lake Toba, wouldn't make the Earth uninhabitable. Granted, a 5-6 degree temperature drop (as was seen in the Toba eruption), would lead to widespread famine for a few years, but within a decade or so temperatures would return to normal. $\endgroup$ – ckersch May 3 '16 at 15:25
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You cannot make Earth uninhabitable by earthquakes only. Especially if no big damage will be inflicted at the beginning.

Your best bet would to awake Yellowstone supervolcano, but even THAT will not be enough. Even much larger volcano eruption, Deccan lava flow might have helped to extinguish dinosaurs but did not make Earth uninhabitable. Siberian traps was even bigger, when Earth was younger (500MYA) and continued for 200MY but did not extinguished life on our planet.

Read up on Earth mantle. You cannot put anything into the mantle which will survive for centuries to create more disturbancies.

Yes, after such volcanic activity population of the planet will decrease, possibly significantly, but civilization and technology will NOT be wiped out.

What you can do is to arrange for bombarding Earth by series of "space rocks". Terraforming of the Moon/Mars gone bad? If you time it correctly, and will coincide with Yelowstone supervolcano eruption (first chunk might fall into it, opening it for explosion), you may grind down survivors after few centuries: While survivors would be too preoccupied trying to eke out living, they will NOT to be able to divert next strike - and then another and another.

EDIT: So lets assume timeframe:

  • Terraforming Moon blew it into pieces. One chunk hits Yellowstone, which explosion covers USA with 3 feet of ash, destroys agriculture, kills 100M people immediately, and stops flight and global trade. For better effect, few more pieces hit Europe, Pacific (causing 300 feet tsunami hit Japan and China and Australia, wiping coastal settlements) and South Atlantic.
  • Global trade collapses. Civilization reverts to Middle Ages, wars for resources ensue, with few lucky areas re-building technology of industrial revolution.
  • Climate collapses. Volcanoes spew sulphur, increasing the greenhouse effect

Now, more stray pieces of rocks are flying to Earth, but there is no way to build rockets to deal with them. So these rocks will keep pummeling the survivors.

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    $\begingroup$ Significant casualty would be cause enough to declare the planet a lost cause. Especially if there is a viable evac option. $\endgroup$ – AmiralPatate May 3 '16 at 16:41
  • $\begingroup$ Significant casualties could mean there is not manpower to build ships to evacuate, so you are stuck to lost cause :-) $\endgroup$ – Peter M. May 3 '16 at 17:01
  • $\begingroup$ Let me rephrase: projection of significant casualties would be cause enough to look at other options beyond laying there in wait. $\endgroup$ – AmiralPatate May 3 '16 at 17:03
  • $\begingroup$ I added a plausible timeline to ensure that no evac is feasible. $\endgroup$ – Peter M. May 3 '16 at 17:16
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    $\begingroup$ OK but you cannot kill the planet without killing all humans. Planet is more resilient than species. This was more plausible scenario than just Yellowstone explosion - which does little or nothing to Europe or China. $\endgroup$ – Peter M. May 3 '16 at 17:32
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We the human race have become quite proficient at modeling the environment to our needs and our taste. And, if we could not, we build our own closed environment. We placed people on space and on Moon's surface, and we are planning to place one of our kind on another planet's (Mars) surface. All of it with our current technology.

Don't count on buildings falling down, we already engineered and developed anti-earthquakes systems and seismic resistant skyscrapers. So if the world will become uninhabitable in 50-100 years, I think we can work on something about the buildings.

Also, we are currently able to move other organic life away from its natural environment and make it live as usual. Industrial indoor hydroponics, air and water filtering and conditioning, and mineral resources processing are actual things, so I wouldn't expect a food shortage at our current tech level.

The population in your setting has access to faster-than-light travel, which we can only dream about, so you can build anti-seismic closed environments to shelter your population until the world is habitable again. For an evacuation plan to be the only salvation you need to make the planet uninhabitable FOR GOOD. That's to say you need planetary catastrophe/destruction gradual enough to give your population 50-100 years to notice it and evacuate the planet. And I can think a way to achieve this after the initial shock:

Harmonic resonance

Your Nova facility triggered a seismic wave in the very exact frequency (or spectrum) that leads to a harmonic retro-alimentation cycle into the planet's core that will eventually rip the Earth's crust.

It is hard to achieve through uniform solid, and a lot harder through different densities liquid, but maybe this shockwave triggered an alteration at the core's hydrodynamics that destabilized the mantle and feeds the retro-alimentation cycle.

I know that the chances are very VERY small to reach a scenario like this, but if they already have faster-than-light travel for sure they can achieve the energy levels to create such situation.

EDIT: Removed the black hole scenario

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  • $\begingroup$ In my original idea, the quakes become more and more frequent, with higher orders of magnitude also becoming more and more frequent. The idea being that even if buildings and infrastructure survive one quake, they also have to survive the next one, and the next one, and maybe a tsunami or the occasional nuclear meltdown. Eventually, I would assume it would fail spectacularly. I would be interested in hearing more about that harmonic retro-alimentation cycle thing though. $\endgroup$ – AmiralPatate May 3 '16 at 11:44
  • $\begingroup$ The idea behind the retro-alimentation cycle is that the seismic wave not just sustains by itself due to harmonic resonance but it grows in amplitude and energy peak events frequency making the earthquakes stronger and more frequent. Realistically this shouldn't happen due to the conservation of energy law, but maybe we can "handwave" it just a little bit to make the Earth's mantle/core mechanisms sustain and grow the seismic wave. But I am not a geologist and don't know if that is plausible. $\endgroup$ – JordiVilaplana May 3 '16 at 12:02
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Clearly, the NOVA corp is experimenting with an artificial supernova or black hole otherwise there name would be pointless.

What advanced race would not want a nearly unlimited source of energy such as a blackhole. Obviously, as a precaution they would be using a small possibly micro blackhole. Yet, large enough that simple containment was impossible.

A technician monkeying with the gravitational compensator messes up, or sabotage and boom. The explosion would be failure of the containment system, potentially the blackhole goes supernova at this time. The blackhole remains and/or reforms, and starts gradually sucking the planet in. If the NOVA facility is on the exact opposite side of the planet you might be able to get 50-100 years. Maybe the safe guards of the facility and its physical design cause the blackhole to be ejected into orbit. Eventually it could consume the planet.

The cost to contain and rebuild would have to be high enough to make rebuilding impracticable. This kind of evacuation would also occur if the remaining resources were going to be depleted or somehow contaminated beyond the cost effective ability to clean it up.

If and when a race reaches the point they have FTL there isn't going to be much beyond there reach. Advanced teraforming equipment will be able to repair all but the most devastating events. If they have 50-100 years the new developments in technology will probably let them overcome the explosion.

  1. blackhole has to slowly eat the planet
  2. Radiation levels to gradually rise planet wide to unsafe levels.
  3. If the major supply of water was contaminated or the natural resource they came for was contaminated.
  4. Gradual loss of atmosphere.

Today, a source of gradually spreading nuclear radiation would, totally work as a reason to leave a planet. However, if you have FTL containment would probably be trivial.

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We're slowly managing the damage done by the Nova experiment, and while the crater is properly guarded from nosy civilians, we've encounter a problem which might be life ending, so please read the following with utmost concentration:

It seems like the explosion's damage hasn't only affected the crust of the earth, but minute unidentified particles radiated and have entered the earths magnetic core. At this moment the effects are minimal, but they're slowly drifting towards the center of the mass.

According to the lab tests we've done so far, the closer these parts come together, micro black holes they will form, effectively distorting the earth core beyond our control. It will not destroy the earth, but it will distort the planet violently enough to render it inhabitable for human life.

Simulations have calculated an estimate of ~94% chance of this happening before returning to a status quo state.

Immediate global evacuation is recommended.

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    $\begingroup$ You do realise how impossible this is, right ? Earth will never be massive enough to collapse into a blackhole. $\endgroup$ – Nico May 3 '16 at 14:28
  • $\begingroup$ "experimenting with extremely advanced and extremely hazardous power generation technology" might do the trick. Or if "black hole" really bothers you, it could be another natural event, based on the same principle $\endgroup$ – Martijn May 3 '16 at 14:32
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    $\begingroup$ @Nico He didn't day that. He said a micro-blackhole (or several) forms inside the Earth's core that starts eating parts of the core away. This causes the core instability. $\endgroup$ – Tonny May 3 '16 at 14:33
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    $\begingroup$ Yeah I know, but that is still nowhere near feasible with actual physics. $\endgroup$ – Nico May 3 '16 at 15:06
  • $\begingroup$ @Tonny Instead of "eating the core away", say "increasing local density and distorting the gravitational field", which will cause issues with the Moon's tidal forces as well. $\endgroup$ – wizzwizz4 May 3 '16 at 17:58

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