Spelunkers rappel 300 feet (90 meters) into the Greenland ice sheet. Glacier caves such as these form when seasonal meltwater or geothermal vents cut fissures and channels through an ice sheet. Because they are made of ice, glacier caves can be quite unstable and present unique challenges to spelunkers.
Spelunkers rappel 300 feet (90 meters) into the Greenland ice sheet. Glacier caves such as these form when seasonal meltwater or geothermal vents cut fissures and channels through an ice sheet. Because they are made of ice, glacier caves can be quite unstable and present unique challenges to spelunkers.
Photograph by Carsten Peter

Caves

These large underground chambers can take hundreds of thousands of years to form.

A veil of darkness cloaks the natural beauty of caves. Some are found in cliffs at the edge of the coastline, chipped away by the relentless pounding of waves. Others form where a lava tube's outer surface cools and hardens and the inside of the molten rock drains away. Caves even form in glaciers where meltwater carves tunnels at the beginning of its journey to the sea.

Formation Process

But most caves form in karst, a type of landscape made of limestone, dolomite, and gypsum rocks that slowly dissolve in the presence of water with a slightly acidic tinge. Rain mixes with carbon dioxide in the atmosphere as it falls to the ground and then picks up more of the gas as it seeps into the soil. The combination is a weak acidic solution that dissolves calcite, the main mineral of karst rocks.

The acidic water percolates down into the Earth through cracks and fractures and creates a network of passages like an underground plumbing system. The passages widen as more water seeps down, allowing even more water to flow through them. Eventually, some of the passages become large enough to earn the distinction of "cave". Most of these solutional caves require more than 100,000 years to widen large enough to hold a human.

The water courses down through the Earth until it reaches the zone where the rocks are completely saturated with water. Here, masses of water continually slosh to and fro, explaining why many caverns lay nearly horizontal.

Fanciful Features

Hidden in the darkness of caves, rock formations called speleothems droop from the ceilings like icicles, emerge from the floor like mushrooms, and cover the sides like sheets of a waterfall. Speleothems form as the carbon dioxide in the acidic water escapes in the airiness of the cave and the dissolved calcite hardens once again.

The icicle-shaped formations are called stalactites and form as water drips from the cave roof. Stalagmites grow up from the floor, usually from the water that drips off the end of stalactites. Columns form where stalactites and stalagmites join. Sheets of calcite growths on cave walls and floor are called flowstones. Other stalactites take the form of draperies and soda straws. Twisty shapes called helictites warp in all directions from the ceiling, walls, and floor.

Photograph by john spies, National Geographic Your Shot

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