But, as always, the miners’ biggest challenge came from bitcoin itself. The mere presence of so much new mining in the Mid-Columbia Basin substantially expanded the network’s total mining power; for a time, Carlson’s mine alone accounted for a quarter of the global bitcoin mining capacity. But this rising calculating power also caused mining difficulty to skyrocket—from January 2013 to January 2014, it increased one thousandfold—which forced miners to expand even faster. And bitcoin’s rising price was now drawing in new miners, especially in China, where power is cheap. By the middle of 2014, Carlson says, he’d quadrupled the number of servers in his mine, yet had seen his once-massive share of the market fall below 1 percent.
The Bitcoin network shares a public ledger called "blockchain". This ledger contains every transaction ever processed, allowing a user's computer to verify the validity of each transaction. The authenticity of each transaction is protected by digital signatures corresponding to sending addresses, allowing all users to have full control over sending Bitcoins from their own Bitcoin addresses. In addition, anyone can process transactions using the computing power of specialized hardware and earn a reward in Bitcoins for this service. This is often called "mining".
While it is possible to store any digital file in the blockchain, the larger the transaction size, the larger any associated fees become. Various items have been embedded, including URLs to child pornography, an ASCII art image of Ben Bernanke, material from the Wikileaks cables, prayers from bitcoin miners, and the original bitcoin whitepaper.
Barely perceptible in the early years after bitcoin was launched in 2009, these adjustments quickly ramped up. By the time Carlson started mining in 2012, difficulty was tripling every year. Carlson’s fat profit margin quickly vanished. He briefly quit, but the possibility of a large-scale mine was simply too tantalizing. Around the world, some people were still mining bitcoin. And while Carlson suspected that many of these stalwarts were probably doing so irrationally—like gamblers doubling down after a loss—others had found a way to making mining pay.
More fundamentally, miners argue that the current boom is simply the first rough step to a much larger technological shift that the basin would do well to get into early on. “What you can actually do with the technology, we’re only beginning to discover,” Salcido says. “But the technology requires a platform.” And, he says, as the world discovers what the blockchain can do, the global economy will increasingly depend on regions, like the basin, with the natural resources to run that platform as cheaply as possible.