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 Published by the American Geological Institute
Newsmagazine of the Earth Sciences

 July 2000

Caves and Karst

John E. Mylroie
Cave and karst science got a strong start last year with the Karst Modeling Conference, sponsored by the Karst Waters Institute and held Feb. 24-27, 1999, in Charlottesville, Va. Covering conceptual models, analytical models, digital models, scale models, statistical models, and acquisition and application of field data, the conference followed a trend of attempts to bridge the gaps between theoretical analyses and practical applications.

As summarized by Arthur Palmer, a board member emeritus of the Karst Waters Institute, the meeting addressed such aspects of karst modeling as groundwater flow patterns, velocities and divides; distribution of porosity and permeability; interaction

        The sheer cliffs along the coast of Isla de Mona, west of Puerto Rico, contain
         a conspicuous horizon of solutional caves in Miocene carbonates. The 
         distribution of caves and their sedimentary deposits in such carbonate islands 
         provide clues to late Cenozoic sea-level fluctuation, tectonic uplift and mixing 
         between freshwater and seawater.
         Arthur N. Palmer.
of fluids among porosity types; storage characteristics of pore network; groundwater geochemistry; well-head protection areas; fate and transport of contaminants; groundwater monitoring and remediation strategies; land subsidence and foundation stability; and stormwater management. The talks covered traditional conduit flow models, dual and triple porosity karst aquifer models, fracture flow as a model for karst, paleokarst, mixed-fluid systems, mass and water budgets, and interesting case histories. Increased computer power has created more sophisticated models. At the same time, underlying assumptions are being questioned and refined as we get better data from field settings. Much of the research, and therefore the funding, is being driven by the need to understand contaminant transport in karst settings, where traditional Darcian flow models don’t work. A complete account of the meeting is available as a proceedings volume from

While the Karst Modeling Conference had a strong theoretical bent, the Seventh Multidisciplinary Conference on Sinkholes and the Engineering and Environmental Impacts of Karst (also called the “Sinkhole Conference”) was held April 10-14 in Harrisburg, Penn., to explore applying cave and karst knowledge to dealing with land use in karst areas. Sponsored by P.E. LaMoreaux and Associates, this series began in 1984 and has become the premier forum for applied geology and engineering in karst terrains. As a result, the proceedings of these conferences (published by A. A. Balkema) have become a critical reference source for consultants and regulators. The influx of ideas and experience from overseas speakers —  from Belgium, Canada, Croatia, France, India, Ireland, Kuwait, Lithuania, Russia, Slovenia, Spain and the United Kingdom —  presented karst land-use solutions that were creative and often extremely economical. A special session on highways in karst was timely, as more areas undergo development. The application of sophisticated geophysical techniques and modeling has resulted in karst engineering becoming less reactive and more proactive.
The National Speleological Society held its annual        meeting in Filer, Idaho, July 12-16, 1999, which included  a symposium on sulfuric-acid karst. The oxidation of hydrogen sulfide from hydrocarbon reservoirs to create cave-generating acids remains a hot topic. The concept is being refined by more study of reactant and product transport mechanisms, argon dating of alunite, the role of microbes in karst processes, and the origin of secondary gypsum within carbonate rocks. Additionally, the setting of the meeting was used to present pseudokarst processes associated with volcanic terrains.
    The main stream passage of Blue Spring Cave, Ind. The distribution of
    cave passages in the Ohio River valley has helped to clarify the history of
    fluvial erosion and deposition in the region, Recent dating of quartz 
    sediment in the cave's valley with cosmogenic radionuclides has 
    quantified the stages in the drainage evolution of the Ohio basin.
    Arthur N. Palmer.

The October Geological Society of America (GSA) meeting in Denver last October included a session called, “Sediments in Karst Systems: Processes, Mechanisms, Interpretation.” Sponsored by the GSA Hydrogeology Division, the GSA Quaternary Geology 
and Geomorphology Division, the GSA Sedimentology Division, and the Karst Waters Institute, the session was the meeting’s third largest with 38 abstracts. These were divided about equally between chemical and clastic sediment topics. The main focus was use of cave deposits as paloeclimatic indicators. Paleoclimate case-history interpretations via stable isotope analyses of speleothems, placed in a chronology by uranium/thorium dating, dominated the presentations of chemical cave sediments. Henry Schwarcz of McMaster University pointed out pitfalls in interpreting 18O and 13C data. The clastic cave sediment presentations were more varied, addressing contaminant transport on fine-grained cave sediments, vertebrate fossils as climatic indicators, paleokarst records, and cosmogenic 26Al/10Be dating of sediments.

Karst Science Award

The Karst Waters Institute initiated the Karst Science Award last year to recognize individuals who have made significant contributions to the understanding of karst processes. The inaugural recipient was Derek Ford, recently retired from McMaster University, who was recognized for his numerous achievements spanning four decades.

Mylroie teaches geology at Mississippi State University, is a board member for the Karst Waters Institute and is a fellow of the National Speleological Society. E-mail:

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