Imagine yourself lying on your stomach with a ceiling of rock four inches above your sideways-turned head. The temperature is in the high 40’s, wet mud is soaking through your pants, and, without your headlamp, you would be in complete darkness. And then there are the spiders. Welcome to caving.
So why do thousands of people a year descend into caves and subject themselves to what seems like a living hell? The reason is the chance for novel discovery. Geologists estimate that as little as 10% of caves have been explored. Caves, along with the deep sea, are truly the final frontier on Earth. Even in suburban Columbus, Ohio where I grew up, I had the opportunity to dig out sinkholes and enter passages where the mud was completely flat. In other words, I was crawling through a space that had never been entered by humans within the limits of a city. Now just imagine what remains unexplored in places like Borneo, Vietnam, and Venezuela.
Besides the exploration factor, caves also harbor some of the most unique animal species on Earth. Many of these creatures are specially-adapted for life in caves. Long antennae help them navigate in a completely dark environment and they typically have no skin pigment because there is simply no use for that underground. The larger creatures restricted to caves, such as crayfish and salamanders, have extremely slow metabolisms since food can be few and far between. For example, the Olm of southeastern Europe can go for ten years without a meal and can live to be 100. Unfortunately, due to the activities of humans, many more cave-adapted animals similar to the Olm may disappear before they can even be discovered. Caves might seem like durable, separate worlds that are safe from the harm affecting so much of nature on the surface. This could not be further from the truth. Caves are fragile and intricately connected to surface activities. Water seeping through the surface and into limestone bedrock is the source of most caves on Earth. When the water quality on the surface is jeopardized, so is the cave. Tainted water can persist in caves for a very long time, killing cave organisms and slowing (or even halting) the creation of new formations such as stalactites and flowstone. Many caves, though, can be found in pristine areas where poor water quality is not an issue, yet they are still seriously threatened. What is happening?
To put it simply, caves are being loved to death. In the U.S., it can be hard to find a publicly-accessible, natural cave that does not have its passages painted with spray paint, trash strewn about near its entrance, or its formations broken off. Even experienced cavers, intent on making new discoveries, can damage a cave by trampling delicate formations, disturbing wildlife, or contaminating water. Not enough people that explore caves live by the caving mantra, “Take only pictures, leave only footprints, and kill nothing but time.”
Cities like Nashville, Tennessee and St. Louis, Missouri are in karst regions, geologic areas where caves form. People rely on the water flowing through caves, yet are often unaware of the connection between surface pollution and these subterranean worlds. I encourage anyone reading this to do two things.
- First, always pay attention to what you put down the drain and try to use biodegradable or organic cleaning products whenever possible.
- Second, learn about the caves in your area!
Caving clubs abound in almost every region of the U.S. and their members would be happy to help you make new discoveries underground. Caves have a special ability to captivate people and it’s those people that will ultimately protect these magical places. So get out there and get underground!