Weekend Diversion: Looking down instead of up

"And all your future lies beneath your hat." -John Oldham

Yes, with all the space, astronomy and astrophysics I do here, I can still recognize that there are things of great beauty and importance happening here on the lower 50% of our gaze. For this weekend, I've got a sweet song by Railroad Earth:

Neath The Stars.
(Railroad Earth is great live, by the way. Don't miss your chance to see them if you get one!)

Well, beneath the ground, in many places across the world, lie a series of underground caves. The most spectacular one I've ever been to is Kartchner Caverns in Arizona, spectacular because of how pristine (i.e., not yet ruined by humans) it still is. But this past week, I learned about one that might be even better.

(All images, as far as I can tell, are credited to SPL / Barcroft Media, with many taken by Javier Trueba.)

With giant gypsum crystals -- some up to 35 feet (!) long -- Naica Mine in Chihuahua, Mexico is definitely a place I need to go someday.

The first step in making sure proper care gets taken of this system of caves is getting it designated as a World Heritage Site, otherwise it will likely end up ruined due by human influence.

Juan Manuel Garcia-Ruiz, a geologist who has studied at the mine, had this to say:

They're really one of the Wonders of the World. The crystals need to be preserved much better. They really are something amazing and I think there is still people in Mexico who don't know how important it is to preserve them as much as possible. I'm trying to convince the people of Mexico to claim Naica for Unesco World Heritage site. Naica is very unique and the chance of having another one on the planet is very low.

And it is, without a doubt, stunning. Enjoy this picture gallery courtesy of the UK's Telegraph.

Wonder how these formed? There are hot springs very, very close by. Gypsum deposits saturated the hot water and, over thousands of years, crystals condensed and grew as the water flowing into the cave cooled.

Does it remind you of anything you've seen before? Because I can't help but think of the crystal caverns from Superman II.

So enjoy whatever wonders you encounter this weekend, and I'll see you back here for more on the Universe next week!


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Kartchner Caverns? That's my neck of the woods! Well, my neck of the cacti, anyway. I live about an hour from there. And I've been going through caves since I was about 6 mo., so of course I ended up seeing Kartchner before I even moved here.

When I saw those pics, I imagined if they could have filmed a Star Trek: TOS episode in there. Would've done horrible damage to it, of course, but a fun "what if?".

By Randy Owens (not verified) on 30 Jul 2011 #permalink

I think what will save these caves is that the ambient temperature is about 120 F. I saw these pics when they first came out a year or so ago; the explorers have to go in, spend a minimal amount of time in there, then get the hell out. ...I'm going on sheer memory here so I could be wrong, but these certainly look like the same photos I saw then. If it's so, that should discourage tourism, I'd think.

Yep, the Fortress of Solitude. It's in the first movie, too.

They were flooded until man came along with a mining operation. So in a sense they are ruined already. Think the same mining operation will change conditions in those caves again, if they would flood again?

By Joffemannen (not verified) on 31 Jul 2011 #permalink

Wow ... Unbelievable.

Thank you. Would not have believed that a place like this exists.

@Joffemannen: no, the mine will eventually play out and shut down the pumps. These rooms will re-flood, and the crystals will resume their growth--with perhaps a dark line marking our era.

Very nice.
Of course, the biggest wonders of the world, in this fragile beautiful world of physics, chemistry and life, is beings like you and I.

By AngelGabriel (not verified) on 01 Aug 2011 #permalink

Wonderful stuff... The very similar Lechugilla Cave formations in New Mexico were featured prominently in the wonderful BBC Planet Earth series as well, if you're interested in seeing structures like these in HD video!

I doubt you (or many others) will get to see the inside of the cave in person. The last I heard the plan was to flood the mine with water - that may already have been done. It's such a pity but the geologists seemed to agree that it was the best thing to do. I would have loved a few large good calcite crystals to cut into prisms just for show. :) Better still if we could get a giant levorotatory as well as a dextrorotatory calcite prism ...

By MadScientist (not verified) on 01 Aug 2011 #permalink

Funny, as I was scrolling down and reading, all I could think was Superman II, so I'd figured I'd add a comment about that. Soon enough, wham! there's a couple of pictures from the movie. That made me chuckle.

Great, geeky minds think alike? we certainly know our memes, that's for sure.

Great post! thanks

By Claudia Petrilli (not verified) on 01 Aug 2011 #permalink

Some vug. I have been been very curious about this speliological formation since they first came to my attention ten or 15 years ago when I had a job as naturalist in a particularly nice historic limestone cave and when I first became interested in caves and their geology. I understand that this isn't the first of these pockets of giant crystals to have been encountered in this region of Mexico, and that the other(s) encounters ended bady for the cave(s). It would be nice if they could be somehow preserved for later viewing by others and not simply flooded and essentially lost again, but I have yet to see detailed info on their hydrology, etc. I can well believe however that people, me included, would be willing to spend good money to see them and spend some time in their presence, which in turn could bring about a more widespread and deeper appreciation for the preservation of caves everywhere.