Caves and Karst

Caves and Karst 

The Development of Caves 

In 1799, as legend has it, a hunter by the name of Houchins was tracking a bear through the woods of Kentucky when the bear suddenly disappeared on a hillslope. Baffled, Houchins plunged through the brambles trying to sight his prey. Suddenly he felt a draft of surprisingly cool air flowing down the slope from uphill. Now curious, Houchins climbed up the hill and found a dark portal into the hillslope beneath a ledge of rocks. Bear tracks were all around was the creature inside? He returned later with a lantern and cautiously stepped into the passageway. After walking a short distance, he found himself in a large, underground room. Houchins had discovered Mammoth Cave, an immense network of natural tunnels and subterranean chambers a walk through the entire network would extend for 630 km.
Most large cave networks develop in limestone bedrock because limestone dissolves relatively easily in corrosive groundwater. Generally, the corrosive component in groundwater is dilute carbonic acid (H2CO3), which forms when water absorbs carbon dioxide (CO2) from materials, such as soil, that it has passed through. When carbonic acid comes in contact with calcite (CaCO3) in limestone, it reacts to produce HCO31- and Ca2 ions, which then dissolve. 
In recent years, geologists have discovered that about 5% of limestone caves around the world form due to reactions with sulfuric-acid-bearing water Carlsbad Caverns in New Mexico serves as an example. Such caves form where limestone overlies strata containing oil, because microbes can convert the sulfur in the oil to hydrogen sulfide gas, which rises and reacts with oxygen to produce sulfuric acid, which in turn eats into limestone and reacts to produce gypsum and CO2 gas. 
Geologists debate about the depth at which limestone cave networks form. Some limestone dissolves above the water table, but it appears that most cave formation takes place in limestone that lies just below the water table, for in this interval the acidity of the groundwater remains high, the mixture of groundwater and newly added rainwater is not yet saturated with dissolved ions, and groundwater flow is fastest. The association between cave formation and the water table helps explain why openings in a cave network align along the same horizontal plane.

The Character of Cave Networks 

Development of karst, dripstone and flowstone.
As we have noted, caves in limestone usually occur as part of a network. Cave networks include rooms, or chambers, which are large, open spaces sometimes with cathedral-like ceilings, and tunnel-shaped or slot-shaped passages. Some chambers may host underground lakes, and some passageways may serve as conduits for underground streams. The shape of the cave network reflects variations in permeability and in the composition of the rock from which the caves formed. Larger open spaces developed where the limestone was most soluble and where groundwater flow was fastest. Thus, in a sequence of strata, caves develop preferentially in the more soluble limestone beds. Passages in cave networks typically follow pre-existing joints, for the joints provide secondary porosity along which groundwater can flow faster (figure above a). Because joints commonly occur in orthogonal systems (consisting of two sets of joints oriented at right angles to each other), passages may form a grid. 

Precipitation and the Formation  of Speleothems 

When the water table drops below the level of a cave, the cave becomes an open space filled with air. In places where downward percolating groundwater containing dissolved calcite emerges from the rock above the cave and drips from the ceiling, the surface of the cave gradually changes. As soon as this water re-enters the air, it evaporates a little and releases some of its dissolved carbon dioxide. As a result, calcium carbonate (limestone) precipitates out of the water and produces a type of travertine. The various intricately shaped formations that grow in caves by the accumulation of dripstone are called speleothems. 
Cave explorers (spelunkers) and geologists have developed a detailed nomenclature for different kinds of speleothems (figure above b). Where water drips from the ceiling of the cave, the precipitated limestone builds dripstone. Initially, calcite precipitates around the outside of the drip, forming a delicate, hollow tube called a soda straw. But eventually, the soda straw fills up, and water migrates down the margin of the cone to form a more massive, solid icicle-like cone called a stalactite. Where the drips hit the floor, the resulting precipitate builds an upward-pointing cone called a stalagmite. 
If the process of dripstone formation in a cave continues long enough, stalagmites merge with overlying stalactites to create travertine columns. In some cases, groundwater flows along the surface of a wall and precipitates to produce drape-like sheets of travertine called flowstone (figure above c). The travertine of caves tends to be translucent and, when lit from behind, glows with an eerie amber light.

The Formation of Karst Landscapes 

Features of Karst landscapes.
Limestone bedrock underlies most of the Kras Plateau in  Slovenia, along the east coast of the Adriatic Sea. The name kras, which means rocky ground, is apt because this region includes abundant rock exposures (figure above a). Geologists refer to regions such as the Kras Plateau, where surface landforms develop when limestone bedrock dissolves both at the surface and in underlying cave networks, as karst landscapes or karst terrains from the Germanized version of kras. 
Karst landscapes typically display a number of distinct landforms. Perhaps the most widespread are sinkholes, circular depressions that form either when the ground collapses into an underground cave below (as we discussed early in this chapter) or when surface bedrock dissolves in acidic water on the floor of a bog or pond. Not all of the caves or passageways beneath a karst landscape have collapsed, and this situation leads to unusual drainage patterns. Specifically, where surface streams intersect cracks (joints) or holes that link to caverns or passageways below, the water cascades downward into the subsurface and disappears (figure above b). Such disappearing streams may flow through passageways underground and re-emerge from a cave entrance downstream. In cases where the ground collapses over a long, joint-controlled passage, sinkholes may be elongate and canyon-like. Remnants of cave roofs remain as natural bridges. Ridges or walls between adjacent sinkholes tend to be steep-sided. Over time, the walls erode, leaving only jagged, isolated spires a karst landscape dominated by such spires is called tower karst. The surreal collection of pinnacles constituting the tower karst landscape in the Guilin region of China inspired generations of artists who portray them on scroll paintings (figure below).
Tower karst forms a spectacular landscape in southern China.
Karst landscapes form in a series of stages (figure below a–c).

The progressive formation of caves and a karst landscape.
  • The establishment of a water table in limestone: The story of a karst landscape begins after the formation of a thick interval of limestone in which the water table lies underground. 
  • The formation of a cave network: Once the water table has been established, dissolution begins and a cave network develops. 
  • A drop in the water table: If the water table later becomes lower, either because of a decrease in rainfall or because nearby rivers downcut and drain the region, newly formed caves dry out. Downward-percolating water emerges from the roofs of the caves; dripstone and flowstone precipitate. 
  • Roof collapse: If rocks fall off the roof of a cave for a long time, the roof eventually collapses. Such collapse creates sinkholes and troughs, leaving behind hills, ridges, and natural bridges.

Life in Caves 

Despite their lack of light, caves are not sterile, lifeless environments. Caves that are open to the air provide a refuge for bats as well as for various insects and spiders. Similarly, fish and crustaceans enter caves where streams flow in or out. Species living in caves have evolved some unusual characteristics. For example, cave fish lose their pigment and in some cases their eyes. Recently, explorers discovered caves in Mexico in which warm, mineral-rich groundwater currently flows. Colonies  of bacteria metabolize sulphur-containing minerals in this water and create thick mats of living ooze in the complete darkness of the cave. Long gobs of this bacteria slowly drip from the ceiling. Because of the mucus-like texture of these drips, they have come to be known as “snotites”.
Figures credited to Stephen Marshak.


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