For all the allure and entertainment promised by the city of Las Vegas, NV, no jackpot on Earth should have been valuable enough to convince someone to drive into Sin City from the northwest through a certain stretch of Nye County during the summer of 1957. From May 28 to October 7 of that year, the U.S. military carried out Operation Plumbob in that area–the longest and most destructive series of nuclear test detonations ever conducted within the continental United States.
Now known as the Nevada Test Site (formerly the Nevada Proving Ground), Plumbob’s test area was home to 29 nuclear explosions of various design and placement. Some explosions occurred atop man-made towers a la the original Trinity Test; others happened inside deep shafts or tunnels; some were suspended from high-altitude balloons; and some were simply placed on the ground. Plumbob’s purpose was not just to gather data for the design of future nuclear weapons, but also to assess the radiological, seismic, and psychological fallout of nuclear detonations on nearby areas and populations. Some of the most notorious and controversial nuclear tests ever conducted were attached to Plumbob’s operational portfolio.
For example, on September 19, 1957, the Rainier test included the first fully contained underground nuclear blast, wherein no fallout was ever vented to the atmosphere. It set the standard for underground nuclear testing. On July 26, 1957, the Pascal-A test let loose a nuclear weapon in an uncapped shaft and allowed the military to gauge countermeasures for an unplanned nuclear accident. Think of it as Broken Arrow insurance (or, more accurately, Pinnacle – NUCFLASH insurance). Still, the Pascal-B test may be the most infamous in nuclear technology circles, if only for Plumbob’s most often repeated urban legend.
High-speed photographs taken of the Pascal-B shaft detonation on August 27, 1957 show a faint blur of a manhole cover blown out of the ground at incredible speed. Some calculations suggest the cover was thrown off at six times Earth’s escape velocity, though few believe the object actually managed to achieve orbital insertion. Nonetheless, the Pascal-B manhole cover is sometimes jokingly referred to as the world’s first nuclear-powered spacecraft.
Joking aside, the prospect of an unchanneled earthbound explosion successfully launching an object into space is a subject of great debate. While an unfocused manmade explosion is unlikely to present the necessary force to thrust any significant mass into orbit, geologic events — such as volcanoes — are another matter. The prospect of volcanic spacelaunches has been so seriously considered that it has an official term — one inspired by science fiction.
WHAT IS THE SCI-FI-INSPIRED TERM FOR A GEOLOGIC EVENT THAT LAUNCHES AN OBJECT INTO SPACE?
The geologist’s term of art for a volcanic spacelaunch is a verneshot, named in honor of seminal science fiction author Jules Verne.
Verne, you may recall, wrote a certain hyper-influential novel published in 1865 called From the Earth to the Moon, wherein a supersized artillery cannon is used to launch a manned capsule from… well… the Earth to the moon. The main technology in the novel is, therefore, an earthbound explosion that throws an object into space. The verneshot is a theoretical geological corollary of this principle, only with fewer French aristocrats and U.S. Civil War veterans.
A verneshot is actually a profoundly specific kind of eruption involving a very particular type of geologic formation called a craton. A craton is a stable portion of the continental crust that has survived intact for at least 500 million years, usually near the center of a major tectonic plate. In the verneshot scenario, volcanic gas builds up for millions of years beneath a craton, reaching extraordinary pressures with no means of release as the craton never fractures to provide an outlet. When the gas buildup finally reaches sufficient pressure to rupture the craton, the ensuing eruption would prove so violent as to throw some portion of ejecta into a suborbital trajectory at escape velocity. Put more simply, the eruption is powerful enough to launch rock into space.
Verneshots were conceived as theoretical events that might have been responsible for several mass extinctions in the fossil record, many of which coincide with unusual geologic formations. In these suppositions, verneshots may dump untold millions of tons of ash into the atmosphere, thereby creating the volcanic equivalent of nuclear winter, which in turn leads to radical climate change and mass extinctions. Some have even speculated that a verneshot was a contributing factor in the Cretaceous-Tertiary extinction, which coincided with the K-T boundary layer of global geology and — most famously — the extinction of the dinosaurs.
That’s not just a notorious neologistic name-drop, it’s a ferociously inflammatory burst of fossilized Geek Trivia.
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