Could a nuke make Yellowstone Caldera erupt?
May 4, 2004 9:19 AM   Subscribe

Could a small nuclear device, sunk to the bottom of Yellowstone lake and detonated, actually cause the Yellowstone super-caldera to erupt? (more inside)
posted by troutfishing to Science & Nature (25 answers total)
"Could Jesus microwave a burrito so hot that even He couldn't eat it?"
posted by Fupped Duck at 9:22 AM on May 4, 2004

Response by poster: The father (who I've never met) of a friend of mine has some national prominence in conspiracy circles, and he's been oppressing his daughter with talk of the coming "end of the world" (it's all relative, right?) via the eruption of the Yellowstone Caldera. I went to research this so that I could calm my friend's sense of gloom and, along the winding path in which one grand conspiracy theory morphs into the next, arrived at a conspiracy world devoted to the idea that Al Qaeda was going to destroy America by setting off the Yellowstone caldera with a nuclear bomb which they had submerged in Yellowstone Lake.

It was a James Bond plot!......or maybe "Austin Powers 3" ?

Anyway, I'm actually curious. Can anyone out there with training in Geology or Earth Science (and also a good sized dose of physics as well) tell me whether this doomsday method is actually plausible or not ? (and I don't mean the Al Qaeda/bomb end of the scenario)
posted by troutfishing at 9:33 AM on May 4, 2004

Response by poster: Fupped Duck - Yes. And No. As any fool is aware, Jesus does not eat burritos. But back to the Doomful Caldera........
posted by troutfishing at 9:35 AM on May 4, 2004

national prominence in conspiracy circles

/me snickers
posted by anathema at 9:35 AM on May 4, 2004

Here is the USGS Yellowstone Volcano Observatory FAQ on the subject of eruptions.
posted by monju_bosatsu at 9:44 AM on May 4, 2004

My understanding is that its unclear what it would take to trigger a geological event, because it's a complex system that can (and obviously) change state very suddenly from only a small amount of input.

However, there's an intuitive comprehension that needs to be calibrated. That's the relative energy release of a nuclear bomb and of a geological event like an earthquake or volcanic eruption. And the thing is, a nuclear bomb is puny.

So if a nuclear device could trigger a gelogical catastrophe, it would have to perfectly placed, a straw breaking the camel's back, so to speak.

By the way, there's a recent science fiction book that postulates a relatively small nuclear explosion in the bottom of the north atlantic (IIRC) that causes big deep-water to shallow-water cycling of nitrogen that, in turn, dramatically affects the weather and creates a super storm system that is persistent and spawns lots of hurricanes. This is related to the current movie about sudden climate change, too, I guess.

Okay, there's this whole thing about chaos and complexity. One thing that people consistently misunderstand (and Crichton misunderstood) about chaos theory is that chaotic systems are chaotic but also, in a sense, quite stable. Chaotic and complex systems tend to be "sticky" around various "regions", but can change state rapidly and (in some senses, unpredictably), with only small input, from one of those regions to another. On the other hand, a large input might not budge it at all. And on the the third hand (doesn't everyone have on of these?), sometimes it may act linearly.

So, intuition about these systems needs to be modified, at least, by a great deal of care. Or perhaps discarded.

That's the general answer to your question and implied question(s). Hopefully, someone will come along with a very specific and professionally qualified answer.
posted by Ethereal Bligh at 9:45 AM on May 4, 2004

I have no answers, but I found a a neat summary of the fears of the velostat hat people. It's got the requisite looney super-sized images and graphs that mean nothing in context. Thanks for making me aware of this, Troutfishing! It's hilarious!
posted by Mayor Curley at 9:51 AM on May 4, 2004

I'm due in Yellowstone in about 10 days so I'd be grateful if you'd postpone any endtimes plans until I leave the area thanks...
posted by i_cola at 9:56 AM on May 4, 2004

Response by poster: the "velostat hat people" ? - Curley, did you make that name up ?

i_cola - So be it. I have spoken. Plus, if the volcano blows, you won't be able to sue me.
posted by troutfishing at 10:34 AM on May 4, 2004

velostat hats. If you're still using aluminum, welcome to the 21st century!
posted by Mayor Curley at 10:53 AM on May 4, 2004

Thought screen hats

Thoughts screens have successfully stopped four kinds of aliens from abducting humans.  

The praying mantis-like aliens.

Servants of the mantis-like aliens who are popularly referred to as grays. 

Snake-skinned aliens popularly referred to as reptilians.

"Meek-Moks" which refers to the sound these aliens make while speaking.

posted by anathema at 11:01 AM on May 4, 2004

When I was a geology student in Bozeman there was a good deal of talk about setting off the Yellowstone hotspot by pumping beer (undergrads!) into the substrate resulting in an increase in pore pressure and a corresponding increase in seismic activity. Good times. Also, Alt and Hyndeman, IIRC, at UM--Missoula did some work on hyperbolide impact volcanism or terrestrial maria. The basic idea there is that the Yellowstone hotspot as well as the Columbia River Basalt volcanism and the Deccan volcanism were initiated via a big freakin' rock hitting the Earth and excavating enough material that the release of pressure would cause the rock to melt and begin erupting. This process is fairly accepted as having taken place on the Moon, but not so much on Earth. According to my off-the-cuff calculations one drunken night, a medium-yield nuke would release as much energy as the postulated impact. But I *was* drunk. Therefore, in theory you could not only cause Yellowstone to erupt, but you could actual create a new Yellowstone (Or Hawaiian island chain for that matter).

More on pore pressure: groundwater increases either the stress or the strain (took structural geology about eight years ago and like to failed it) on the substrate which makes the rock more likely to fracture. There is, if my memory and structure professor can be trusted, an area in Colorado where the Army Corp of Engineers pumped a bunch of water into the substrate resulting a a series of small but measurable earthquakes a long, long way from any plate boundaries.

So yeah, I'm a geology dropout who's typing this up in a completely unrelated class so neither my prose nor my research are up to par, but it's a start. Also, rumors suggest that the Corp of Engineers working with the Park Service has Old Faithful rigged with subterranean waterworks to maintain the illusion of regularity. :)
posted by stet at 11:03 AM on May 4, 2004

Here's some stuff from a paper discussing impact volcanism. Fields, Patrick F., 2002 Some comments on the impact origin of the Miocene Pacific Northwest volcanics hypothesis. in Abstracts with Programs - Geological Society of America. 34; 5, Pages 43. I can't link because it lives in Georef and I shan't quote the entire abstract cuz I ain't too clear on fair use.

The recent proposal that a southeastern OR meteorite impact was the causal agent for the Miocene lava flows in the Pacific NW (Alt, Hyndman, and others), and thus the trigger of: all the Columbia River Basalt flows, the origin of the mantle "hot spot" presently under the Yellowstone regions, and both the eastern and western Snake River Plains (SNRP) is here questioned. Problems with this scenario are: 1) The size of the proposed impact crater would occupy nearly all of southeastern OR, and yet there is no evidence for it....

So I guess you'd need a nuke big enough to excavate the best part of Oregon to trigger hotspot volcanism, which is a bit of a stretch. As for triggering an eruption, that much, much easier. My guess would be that in order for the bomb w/ L. Yellowstone scenario to work you'd need a mechanism to force the water into the substrate. I don't know enough about demolition to know how that would work. All that comes to mind is a line in The Monkeywrench Gang about detonating dynamite behind a dam and having the explosion "tamped by a million tons of water." I don't know what that means.

So yeah, I don't think the big explosion is the best way to kickstart this particular eruption, I'd definately go with saturating the substrate w/ water, probably by pumping it down something like an oil well. Drilling for oil is legal in National Parks nowadays, isn't it?
posted by stet at 11:44 AM on May 4, 2004

A good example to think about is Mount Saint Helens. In that case, a fresh gas-rich magma chamber was sitting in the base of the mountain, swelling one side of the mountain at a measurable rate. This swelling caused the mountain to fail to the north, creating a huge lanslide that buried Spirit Lake under some number of hundreds of feet of mud. Like taking the top off a shaken up pop-bottle, the gas in the magma chamber decompressed, taking a lot of magma with it.

So, could the same thing happen in Yellowstone? It depends on the state of the magma chamber, something pretty hard to gauge. In theory were the chamber gas-rich a nuclear explosion that removed enough material could start the decompression of the gas. This is a lot different than decompressing regular rock or mantle as previous posters were talking about.
posted by copmuter at 11:53 AM on May 4, 2004

Good call, copmuter. Alt and Hyndeman was just the closest example I could think of off the top of my head. What gets me thinking is how easy it'd be to trigger Mammoth Mountain, CA. Isn't that swelling at, like, 2cm/year?
posted by stet at 11:59 AM on May 4, 2004

Response by poster: Wow, thanks for the informed speculation. So that sounds like a qualified "maybe".

I can imagine Osama Bin Laden now, to henchman : "What is this MAYBE ? We do not deal in MAYBES ! Fool !.....

...What of the giant tidal wave idea ?"

Curley - But what is this "Velostat" ? Does 3M make it just for alien abductees ? Does it stop "Q-waves" ?

(I don't even know what Q-Waves are. I made it up)
posted by troutfishing at 12:25 PM on May 4, 2004

I still think you're overestimating the energetic yield of a nuclear weapon relative to what we're talking about.

I'm not sure that all the extent nuclear weapons in the world could create something like an impact crater the size of all of SE Oregon. If it could (or more), the nuclear winter hypothesis wouldn't have been controversial. We (pretty nearly) know large impacts can cause climate change, easier on water but also on land. The cause relevant to the nuclear winter hypothesis was not ejected debris, but smoke from the resulting firestorms.

Okay, sure, if you could precisely locate a weak spot (and exploit it), you might trigger something with a nuclear device. But it seems to me that if we were that good at analytical and predictive geology, well, the world would look a bit different.

But, hell, what do I know? I'm not a geologist. Or a nuclear weapons scientist.
posted by Ethereal Bligh at 12:27 PM on May 4, 2004

Response by poster: Ethereal Bligh - That was exactly the idea, hitting the weak spot.

[ LONG ASIDE.... But, goddamn, I forgot to mention a sub-variant of this doomsday scenario :

It involves the caldera being sucked on and thus exploded ( the "Gravitational caldera-boil-lance" idea ) by a large gravitational force exterior to the Earth. Some people (the Velostat Hat fellow travellers, I guess) believe in the existence of a large, rogue planet - "Planet X" or "Planet Niburu" (there are probably other names for it too).

In some versions, the planet just has an extremely eccentric elliptical orbit so that it approaches the earth only once in a cycle maybe ten thousand years long or more. Others believe this planet is invisible, and others still feel that it is controlled by aliens or by a divine force which is watching the earth right now, in judgement.........

( I'm really just egging Curley on )

Also, the Earth is hollow at the poles, filled with aliens and nazis who all look just like.....Elvis! ]

Anyway, wasn't the rough scientific consensus that the Yellowstone Caldera would blow sometime in the next 5,000 years ?
posted by troutfishing at 12:41 PM on May 4, 2004

Hey, what happened with that expedition to find the holes at the poles? Did they ever return? All I recall is they were charging something to the tune of $50000 per person to go on this wiggy trip...
posted by five fresh fish at 2:15 PM on May 4, 2004

What, you're not going, fff? I have my calendar marked, June 2006.

And it was only $20,000, you goddamn cheapskate. But I guess you'll just have to settle for a postcard. I'll be sure to pick one up as I pass through the monorail station -- would you rather I sent it from the City of Jehu or from the Palace of the King of the Innerworld?
posted by rafter at 8:30 PM on May 4, 2004

oh, if you're in Jehu, go to Isabel's Cafe for dinner--they do things with moss you wouldn't believe. ; >
posted by amberglow at 8:36 PM on May 4, 2004

The biggest thermonuclear weapons ever built can put out around the same amount of energy as 32 million tons of TNT and just might manage to pull off a seven on the Richter scale if you could somehow miraculously convert almost all of its energy into a earth-borne shockwave.

Your question on the other hand specifies a “small” nuclear device. I'll assume that you're talking about something man-portable, like the so-called “suitcase” bomb, which would output the same amount of energy as 1000 tons of TNT (roughly equivalent to a four on the Richter scale if we assume that it too can convert the vast majority of its energy into a shockwave).

To give you some idea of what sort of impact that might have here is a map of twenty-eight years worth of earthquake data from the Yellowstone region, including one 6.1 magnitude quake and quite a few earthquakes of around magnitude four.

MetaFilter's resident geophysicist yami_mcmoots can probably work out how frequently Yellowstone would get a seven quake, but the magnitude four impact that you would (in a perfect world) get from your small nuclear weapon doesn't seem to be that uncommon. The other problem is that in the real world your bomb doesn't release energy deep underground. It's going to be buried, at best, a trivial distance below ground and as a result a lot of the energy is going to be reflected by the earth's surface.

The short answer? No.
posted by snarfodox at 10:52 PM on May 4, 2004

Response by poster: A learned answer, snarfodox, and thanks - but I have two pointed objections - 1) water is pretty dense and should transmit the shock wave from a blast more efficiently than most media, 2) The energy from an earthquake would be much more widely distributed than a blast from a nuke - or am I wrong on this ?

Maybe this thread should be classified.

amberglow - If you like the moss, there's a place 2 blocks down the street from Isabel's which has a wonderful lichen soup. They'll also scrape it off rocks, fresh, into your bowl!
posted by troutfishing at 9:29 AM on May 5, 2004

1) Whatever is under the water is pretty much guaranteed to be denser than the water. That's why it doesn't float.

3) There are a good many poisonous lichen. Kids, don't try this at home.
posted by five fresh fish at 10:58 AM on May 5, 2004

Most of the energy from a nuclear blast (about two thirds) is heat and light anyway, which should make short work of the water. It's not an unreasonable simplification to talk about two spaces being available for the shockwave to propagate through: solid earth and a very warm gas.

Yami may very well do something horrible to me if I get this wrong and/or simplify it beyond her tolerance level, so here's hoping that it slips under the radar: the main part of the energy of an earthquake is usually tens of miles underground and usually implies something ripping, breaking, slipping, or otherwise releasing energy. The resulting pressure wave then deforms the surface. Seismometers are actually sitting on the surface of the earth, measuring the movement of the earth, so they're really an indirect way of estimating the energy involved in an earthquake event by taking in to account how much energy has been transmitted through to the earth's surface. You get very good estimates of energy, depth and location by using several of them.

The nuclear weapons we discussed will burst relatively near the surface, waste a lot of energy as heat and light, and most of the shockwave will transmit into the atmosphere, being the less dense medium. That makes a very serious mess at ground level, but isn't really a major event in terms of geological energy.
posted by snarfodox at 3:15 PM on May 5, 2004

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