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The story is in contemporary earth and with same technology.
How can a single human make the Yellowstone explode with the tools available to us now (or with slightly advanced ones, but nothing too sci fi)?

The human in question wants to cause a mass extinction for reasons, and has virtually infinite budget (imagine a Bill Gates but with the absolute monopoly in most sectors all over the world) and high level understanding of mechanics and electronics (Kind of Tony stark).

The "extinction project" will be run by him only (maybe a handful of people, but preferably him alone).

Edit: I'm sorry if I didn't read all the comments and all the suggestions, I'm going through hard times lately. Still thank you very much for all the support.

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    $\begingroup$ Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. $\endgroup$ – Monica Cellio Oct 22 '17 at 3:46

12 Answers 12

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Likeliest - but alas already taken - answers

  • anon's: "there is no easy way". I'd go for that one, even if it's anticlimactic.
  • Ash's: "drill a hole in the magma chamber to trigger outgassing". By far the best "can do" answer, but it requires Yellowstone to already be in a close-to-eruption state (there must be enough dissolved gas in the right conditions).
  • underground bombing: same problems in penetrating the magma chamber, plus that of having the bomb(s) - or as Carl Witthoft suggested, the antimatter containment unit - survive the trip.

Things that would not work

  • Save drilling time using the Father of All Kinetic Impactors. There's probably a nice acronym in there, but the project just got mothballed due to lack of the required hyperdense penetrator. Unless we're talking of a Chicxulub event, which would put Yellowstone in the position of the tail wagging the dog.
  • Laser drills. Same energy problem of the neutrino heater described below, only much larger. Also, extremely visible.
  • Grey goo excavators. The little critters are tough, but the environment down there doesn't really lend itself to nanomachine work, what with those balmy 1500 °C and acid magma. This is actually one of the reasons why the computronium apocalypse is going to require some time.

Way more farfetched possibility

Our sociopathic billionaire wants Yellowstone to erupt even if it were naturally inclined not to. Now, volcanism is driven by heat rising out of Earth's core, and this heat is largely produced by the decay of heavy elements sunk in the lower mantle.

To increase the core heat directly below Yellowstone, one would need to increase the decay rate of at least the thorium chain of isotopes. There is some preliminary evidence that this might be possible after all.

So, at a ruinous cost, build enough efficient neutrino emitters (this is the most science-fiction-y part: we need an industrial strength neutrino emitter) almost wherever you want since neutrinos have no troubles in passing through thousands of kilometers of rock; and aim them on the volume directly below Yellowstone (for better results, the nearer you are, the more vertically you can aim, improving efficiency).

After sufficient time has passed (which depends on the neutrino flux, which depends on the energy and means available, thus on the money) the temperature beneath Yellowstone will have increased and a large "bubble" will be slowly slouching towards the surface. At the same time, surface temperature won't have changed detectably, reducing the possibility of spoiling the surprise.

At this point either let things proceed on their own, or accelerate the works with drilling or bombing.

Of course, radiation counters on the other side of the planet and neutrino detectors almost all over the world will start going crazy, which could be an important plot device - see whether a neutrino scientist can put the data together, triangulate and make the jump and deduce that someone is trying to cook off Yellowstone.

For the sociopathic billionaire, once the emitters are in existence through impressive feats of R&D, there will be the problem of how to camouflage them - hel'll need to set up plausible factories containing a mystery section where terrifying quantities of energy go in, and nothing much comes out (maybe he can try and market some side-effect of the emitter, possibly buying it himself under false identities).

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    $\begingroup$ Do note that Yellowstone could go on next to no notice naturally; what I mean is there's no such thing as "close enough to eruption" in terms of a direct time/eruptive potential correlation, the chamber could fill with melt and erupt almost overnight from next to nothing. $\endgroup$ – Ash Oct 18 '17 at 17:06
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    $\begingroup$ I'm sorry, but emitting enougn neutrinos to interact with anything on a macroscopic level is going to be harder than, say, disassembling the Earth, building a new one that is exactly the same except that Yellowstone has already erupted, and blinking as you are teleported from one to the other. $\endgroup$ – Yakk Oct 18 '17 at 19:06
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    $\begingroup$ @Yakk, yes. That would be the part on efficient neutrino emitters being science fiction. Not so different from FTL engines then :-) $\endgroup$ – LSerni Oct 18 '17 at 19:10
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    $\begingroup$ Even if the neutrino emitters are 100% efficient, you need to pump a geologically relevant amount of energy into the magma chamber. Generating a geologically relevant amount of energy is a massive undertaking that cannot be done in secret. Geology is orders of magnitude bigger than anything humans do. Once you clear that hurdle, the vast majority of your neutrinos are going to pass straight the earth. Of the ones that don't, most are going to be absorbed after they pass through the magma chamber. $\endgroup$ – BobTheAverage Oct 18 '17 at 19:19
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    $\begingroup$ Well, if you're going to go for neutrino emitters,why not just drill a borehole and drop a kg or so of antimatter onto the lava? $\endgroup$ – Carl Witthoft Oct 18 '17 at 19:30
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There is no easy way to make it erupt

Sure you could say drill a deep enough hole and fill it with explosives or an H-bomb and let it go. But the key here is pressure. For Yellowstone to be an extinction level event it needs to have enough magma pooled up to burst. What screws up the planet isnt the lava but all the gas and debris shoved into the atmosphere and it's the surface area of the volcano/caldera and its pressure that gets it there. Yes it has a lot of pressure built up now but popping it prematurely would likely reduce its ultimate effect. Also, drilling a hole and blowing it up reduces the surface area of the eruption point which may reduce the amount of debris shoved into the atmosphere.

There is also the fact that Yellowstone is a closely Federally protected land. The US Federal Government would by no stretch of the imagination allow some trillionaire to start developing it unless they paid off the US debt or managed to pitch to congress a strong geothermal energy production claim that still allowed tourism. Keeping their activity secret would also be impossible because everyone would be curious as to what they were up to.

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    $\begingroup$ Minor quibble: The park is not protected for the sake of tourism, but naturalism. $\endgroup$ – can-ned_food Oct 18 '17 at 13:38
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    $\begingroup$ @can-ned_food On paper you are right, but I guarantee you if congress pushed to isolate Yellowstone from human interference (as a true nature preserve). Wyoming would fight that tooth and nail. $\endgroup$ – anon Oct 18 '17 at 13:41
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    $\begingroup$ Oh, yes: I meant that developing for geothermal would become a significant aspect of the story in its own right vis–à–vis the Alaskan oil pipeline. $\endgroup$ – can-ned_food Oct 18 '17 at 13:48
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    $\begingroup$ Yellowstone park is intended by law for both preservation of nature and recreation, or at least that's what the rangers told me this summer. $\endgroup$ – Joren Oct 19 '17 at 8:49
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With a reasonably small (but very expensive) drill actually.

The reason dormant volcanoes like Yellowstone or Taupo are quiet is not because they are no longer being feed heat and magma but because they're in Isostatic Equilibrium; the weight of the soil, rock, and even water on top of the magma chamber is in balance with the pressure in the magma chamber such that the volatiles, gases and water vapor, in the magma stay dissolved and don't form any bubbles. Once the process of Bubble Nucleation begins in magma, especially in Rhyolites like Yellowstone, it quickly becomes self sustaining. This causes the molten rock to foam up and eventually explode out of the vent as volcanic ash.

Anything that breaks the equilibrium between the magma chamber and its overburden sufficiently to allow nucleation to begin (including a small eruption at the site) has the potential to cause a major eruption. The most common natural example of this is the draining of a crater lake releasing water pressure from the vent mouth and allowing gas to begin migrating. Provided that Yellowstone was "ready to go" AKA had a large volume of active, eruptable magma in its chamber a small (30 cm or more should do it) hole in the roof of the chamber could be enough to allow runaway nucleation to begin.

The drill is very expensive, because both the head and the drill string will have to tolerate temperatures close to or in excess of 1000 degrees Celsius. Hardened high temperature alloys will need to be used extensively in the design.

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  • $\begingroup$ Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. $\endgroup$ – James Oct 20 '17 at 19:58
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It would be easier to just build a large hydrogen bomb.

Yellowstone is about a 875 gigatonne explosion. Tsar Bomba was designed 100 at megatonnes.

There are little to no fundamental barriers to making a larger nuclear bomb than Tsar Bomba; it was made smaller and not repeated because large, single nuclear bombs are not useful in nuclear war.

Just set of a 100+ gigatonne explosion buried at Yellowstone. Or really wherever you want. If you really want to work Yellowstone in, claim that a 10 gigatonne explosion should trigger the rest of the cascade explosion, setting Yellowstone off early at roughly half power. 10 gigatonne is only 100x larger than already designed nuclear bombs where.

Something as simple as 100 duplicates of the Tsra Bomba design set to go off a the same time would work. Or, add another stage or two to get exponential return from a single bomb.

Tsar Bomba uses a fission trigger to fuel a fusion reaction. They eliminated the 3rd stage of that being used on a fission tamper to release more energy. Simply replacing lead components with the designed uranium would bring it up to its full yield of 100 MT.

Adding a 4th stage would be theoretically possible. As an example, imagine building a sphere of Tsar Bombas that focus their energy on a central fusion or fission target. This 4th stage could involve some exotic material, and part of the plot could involve this rich individual building breeder nuclear power plants, stockpiling this exotic material, and building an underground monitoring facility at Yellowstone.

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    $\begingroup$ Tasr Bomba's project design was for 100MT the actual working design was only 50MT you might want to actually make that clear since you have alluded to it. Otherwise it's not a terrible idea, although if you have that much nuclear material the volcano is kind of pointless. $\endgroup$ – Ash Oct 19 '17 at 9:35
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    $\begingroup$ @ash There is every reason to believe simply replacing the dampers would have generated about the 100MT yield (and made it much dirtier). I consider my allusion enough. As for using yellowstone, the theory is that you can use it to amplify the effects of the explosion by another order of magnitute, to take it from "disaster" to "extinction level event". Maybe your 20 Bombas that feed into a fusion core design has difficulty scaling up beyond that point. Going from 2 GT to 400 GT might be worth it. $\endgroup$ – Yakk Oct 19 '17 at 14:31
  • $\begingroup$ I believe that current technology is insufficient to coordinate nuclear devices. A single device already requires the best precision of coordination we can get, yet AFAIK still no bomb achieves 100% perfect detonation. Successfully coordinating several devices is improbable. $\endgroup$ – Agent_L Oct 20 '17 at 10:18
  • $\begingroup$ @Ash Tsar Bomba exploded at only 50MT because they didn't use U-238 in the damper. Replacing it with U-238 would cause a whole bunch more energy to be released as the neutrons from the fusion slammed into it. Since the damper material is irrelevant to the operation of the fusion stage (the energy levels are high enough anything is vaporized. The only property that matters is inertia.) there's no need to test it in the dirty configuration with U-238. $\endgroup$ – Loren Pechtel Oct 22 '17 at 0:02
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A sufficiently large bomb should do it. Over pressurizing the dome from above then releasing it (aka a shock wave) should be enough to let it blow; it's a bit like shaking a cola can, then popping the top. A ring of shaped explosives would work better; the more of the overburden you move the better. But either way you need a BIG bomb, something comparable to the Halifax Explosion.

But as Anon mentioned, setting such a thing up would be impossible since it would take up a large portion of one of the most visited federal parks in existence. You are talking about a project taking up 1500 square miles in a heavily trafficked heavily regulated area.

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    $\begingroup$ On a supervolcano scale, the Halifax Explosion was puny. Even on a human scale, it's puny: comparable to a small atom bomb. $\endgroup$ – Mark Oct 18 '17 at 20:53
  • $\begingroup$ the explosion that triggers the volcano does not need to be the same size as the volcanic explosion. A ring of them following the caldera should be enough to disturb it. $\endgroup$ – John Oct 18 '17 at 21:34
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    $\begingroup$ Even the Tsar Bomba with a Uranium tamper (and a 100Mt yield) might not be sufficient, despite it being a pretty much extinction level event for a very large area around ground zero. A multi stage device scaled up to a Gigaton yield might work, but at that point it would be cheaper and easier to launch it into space on Elon Musk's BFR and detonate it over the centre point of the United States. $\endgroup$ – Thucydides Oct 19 '17 at 3:41
  • $\begingroup$ It would have to be a really big shock wave but if you got it going it would be self perpetuating. $\endgroup$ – Ash Oct 19 '17 at 9:45
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It's my understanding that the "super" in supervolcano is caused by superheated water and gases. You should be able to speed things up by pumping massive quantities of water and industrial pollution like carbon dioxide. Of course that might cool things off initially, but I think a few billion tons of water and gases might speed things up noticeably.

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I don't know the math but if the impact from de-orbiting something large into the super-caldera could disrupt Ash's IsoStatic Equilibrium, then your billionaire could start some space business (maybe harvesting tritium from the moon's surface for the soon to be invented fusion reactors)...

then arrange for a landing accident on one or more of the earth-bound space barges.

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  • $\begingroup$ Yeah a sufficiently large shock wave, don't ask me to guess how big, would severely disrupt the status quo. It would have to be large enough to shock the magma chamber through 2+kilometres of rock though. I don't how much shock it would take, a lot or it would go off every time there was a descent earthquake. $\endgroup$ – Ash Oct 19 '17 at 9:44
  • $\begingroup$ The "something large" you're looking for is a dinosaur-killer asteroid. You could drop space barges in the Yellowstone caldera all day without doing more than kicking up some dust. $\endgroup$ – Mark Nov 16 '17 at 3:05
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No But...
This is going to be very difficult and expensive and almost certainly would not work, but it might just, although I very much doubt it. First the method then the discussion of the ifs.

If a sufficient number of sufficiently powerful hydrogen bombs could be placed at the bottom of enough shafts dug deep enough, in a ring formation centred on the most volcanically active part of Yellowstone, (and the Government allowed it) then perhaps.

If they were all let off together the blast would concentrate inward and downward giving a gentle (by geological standards) kick start to the energy and magma available to trigger a reaction from Mother Nature.

But there are all those ifs
Can this person gather a sufficient number (10-50+?) of sufficiently powerful (1Megaton+?) hydrogen bombs? No mean feat by anyone however rich. I would say not, but it can’t be totally ruled out.

Can the shafts be dug deep enough? This is all very speculative – it would depend on how far they could be from the epi centre and on how sophisticated the technology available to drill into hot and very hot rocks to great depth. Probably not far enough and not deep enough, but again it can’t be ruled out entirely.

Would they even be allowed in to do anything at all or could they do this secretly. Almost certainly no and no again, but stranger things have happened and it could not be ruled out entirely.

Finally would it actually work? Well you can guess my response here – probably not, but…

Edit - I suppose even if it didn't work, the use of a sufficient number of hydrogen bombs aided by more limited volancim might still cause a nuclear winter and the fiend could claim he had set off Yellowstone, even if he hadn't, although I doubt anyone would be interested by then.

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Yellowstone Supervolcano

Yellowstone is just one of several super volcanoes found across the earth capable of ejecting so much ash and sulfur dioxide into the atmosphere that the planet would experience global cooling. Not only is an eruption likely, it's likely enough that scientists at NASA have been figuring out ways to lessen the likelihood of an eruption.

Yellowstone sits on top of an enormous magma chamber which can fuel a volcanic eruption many times greater than anything we can imagine. The ash alone would bury most of North America in up to 1 foot of ash. It would cripple the ability to grow food over much of the arable land across Canada and the US. That ash would shut down aviation across the planet.

Yellowstone stays dormant because it's leaking 60-70% of the heat from the magma pocket into the atmosphere. If you want to start an eruption, you only have to figure out a way to decrease the heat leakage. You don't need hundreds of nuclear bombs, you need to stop the venting of steam and water. Once the magma heat reaches a certain threshold, then a cataclysmic eruption is inevitable and unstoppable.

Good luck.

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Actually forcing an eruption is very difficult as others have noted and almost impossible to do so stealthily.

I'd take a different approach. Sociopath Billionaire is playing a long game (in my take), so he sets up a Yellowstone monitoring / containment system, all with his own money and all for the public good. He's lauded by everyone and the government becomes more trusting and eventually leaves Yellowstone alone just getting (and trusting) regular updates from the Billionaires team. A few years into the program and SB gets indications that Yellowstone will blow soon. He's the only one in his organisation with access to the complete data, he's very into compartmentalisation. So now all he has to do to complete his fiendish plan is to tweak the data so everything looks okay. Then quietly render his containment system less and less effective, still hiding the data. He'd also need to take care of secondary signs of imminent eruption that might be noticed by other (older) monitoring systems elsewhere.

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Find the biggest asteroid you can maneuver, hide it with UV to radar absorbers, and send it to Yellowstone for high velocity impact.

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We're looking for long answers that provide some explanation and context. Don't just give a one-line answer; explain why your answer is right, ideally with citations. Answers that don't include explanations may be removed.

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    $\begingroup$ Hi Conrad, and welcome to Worldbuilding and Stack Exchange! You've got an interesting idea going here, but it's rather short on detail. Note the constraints in the question. I strongly encourage you to Edit this answer to expand on it; answers that lack sufficient explanation may be at risk of being downvoted and/or deleted. $\endgroup$ – a CVn Oct 19 '17 at 18:24
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LSemi rejects an impact trigger but I think that is invalid. Yes, grabbing an asteroid and tossing it at Yellowstone isn't an answer because to punch deep enough it's too energetic, rendering the eruption moot.

However, what if you don't throw an asteroid? Go out into the asteroid belt and start mining, the objective being to build a rod a few miles long but only tens of feet wide and throw that. Make sure it hits straight.

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