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CAVES. Caves are formed by natural processes that, over millions of years, have carved cavities extending sometimes miles through the earth. Tunnels nearly too narrow to squeeze through may reach wide passages. Shafts may reach up to let daylight in or the floor may drop away into darkness.
By studying rock formations in caves, scientists have found clues to geologic events that occurred millions of years ago.
Imagine a world of near total silence, absolutely without light, of constant temperature and usually without much motion of air or water. That apparent isolation is the cave world to which many living organisms have adapted and by that adaptation have come to depend upon such darkness and quietude. Add to this the exquisite, inanimate, fragile stalactites, stalagmites - even deposits of mud - that have taken centuries to form. We explorers with our lights and noise and fumes and heavy feet are alien intruders. Happily, we can enjoy our visit in little time and then leave the cave world to its own slow, dark tempo - if we are careful. The dilemma of cave exploration is to enjoy our visits to what seems 'another world,' and to leave that world unaltered, unspoiled, for all time."
Rane L. Curl President National Speleological Society, Ann Arbor February 1973 (1)
The most common caves are formed in limestone or as lava tubes in basaltic rock. Other types of caves are less common and form in gypsum, granite, talus, quartzite, ice, and sandstone.
Caves formed from sulfuric acid are called hypogenic caves. Microbes eat the sulfate in oil from underground oil fields. The microbes release a gas called hydrogen sulfide. The hydrogen sulfide rises through cracks in the rock until it reaches an area with oxygen. The hydrogen sulfide gas reacts chemically with the oxygen and forms sulfuric acid , or microorganisms “eat” the hydrogen sulfide, forming sulfuric acid as a product of this metabolism. The sulfuric acid eats away at the limestone in a the cave wall. A cave begins to form. (5)
Caves can be formed from flowing lava. As a volcano erupts, lava flows out across the land. The surface of the lava cools more quickly than the lava underneath, forming a solid surface, which will become the lava tube roof. The volcano stops erupting and the hot, molten lava drains from under the cooler solid surface lava. An empty tube (called a lava tube) is left behind. (6)
As water saturated with calcium carbonate drips through the ceiling of a cave, successive rings of calcite crystals form a tiny tube, a soda straw. If the tube fills, water flows down the outside and the calcite deposits thicken to become a stalactite. Water dripping onto the floor builds stalagmites, which in time may join stalactites to form a column.
Thin layers of calcite forms on the surface of pools as they evaporate. As they float, more and more calcite attaches to it in circular patterns. These "cave rafts" continue to float on the surface of the water as long as it is undisturbed until they reach a weight that pulls them under.
Thicker deposits, called shelfstone form where the surface of the water touches the sides of the cavern or submerged columns. In shallow pools fed by dripping water, cave pearls may form. These small spheres are produced by layers of calcite forming around a grain of sand, much like oysters make the pearls they are named after. The agitation of the dripping water makes the pearls almost round and keeps them from sticking to one another or to the bottom of the pool.
Flowerlike structures can grow. Crystals of calcium sulfate percolate through porous rock. As new crystals are formed from behind, the flower may grow in a variety of shapes. Large crystals may form in underwater chambers.
Naturally occurring caves in the were sometimes enlarged to allow their use. Miners used caves to access deeper veins of LEAD. Caves offered practical if short-term shelter.
Taking advantage of the cool temperatures of caves, people used them for the preservation of dairy products. Ice, beer and other alcoholic beverages could also be stored in them. In 1842 Dr. John Croghan believed the constant temperature of cave air could benefit tuberculosis patients. Testing his ideas at Mammoth Cave in Kentucky proved his ideas incorrect. In 1938 Nathaniel Kleitman and Bruce Richardson, sleep researchers, lived in Mammoth Cave for over a month. Isolated from day and night, they tracked their sleeping and waking cycles and body temperatures making important breakthroughs in the understanding of circadian rhythms. (7)MINING tunnels in the bluffs, make the potential for destruction in the event of severe EARTHQUAKES more likely. The danger of caves (natural and man-made) collapsing have caused many to be permanently sealed.
1. "The Underground World of Caves." Online: http://www.design42.com/caving/index.htm
2. "Journey into Caves." Online: http://www.caveslime.org/kids/cavejourney/caveJourneyGeologyFormRainfall.html
3. "Caves." National Geographic. Online: http://science.nationalgeographic.com/science/earth/surface-of-the-earth/caves-article/
5. "Journey into Caves."
7. Displays located at Mammoth Cave, Kentucky