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Caves and Karst
Louise D. Hose

Research on caves and karst continues to demonstrate a broad scope of interdisciplinary relationships between the geochemical, biological, hydrologic and atmospheric systems in these distinctive environments. Attention focused on epikarst, the interface zone between soil and rock at a Karst Waters Institute conference in October 2003 at Shepherdstown, W.Va. Ecologists, geologists, geochemists, geomorphologists, hydrogeologists and zoologists from eight countries gathered to exchange ideas and further understanding of the physical and biological processes in epikarst. Water, nutrient and contaminant transport and storage in the unsaturated karst terrains demonstrate varied and difficult-to-predict characteristics. Although transportation rates through karst aquifers can be notoriously fast, presenters also demonstrated that the small fractures and solution pockets in epikarst can retain water and contaminants, such as non-aqueous phase liquids, for remarkably long time periods in a variety of climates.

Geologists from around the world gathered at the Geological Society of America meeting in Seattle, Wash., in November to celebrate the careers of speleologists Derek Ford and William White, who recently retired from full-time academic positions at MacMasters University in Torontoand Pennsylvania State University, respectively. Dozens of former students and colleagues provided testimony for the impact of their work over the last nearly half-century and noted the void left by their departures as leaders for the two most significant Ph.D.-granting cave and karst programs in North America.

Geological Society of America Executive Director Jack Hess also focused on this concern during his banquet speech at the International Conference on Karst Hydrogeology and Ecosystems held at Western Kentucky University in June 2003. While there are excellent master's degree programs taught by outstanding cave and karst experts at Western Kentucky, University of Akron, Mississippi State University and elsewhere in the United States., few Ph.D.-granting institutions have faculty expertise and graduate-level courses specific to cave and karst topics. Fortunately, several universities with such capability, such as the University of Missouri-Columbia, University of Florida and University of New Mexico, are expanding their programs in this field.

The New Mexico Institute of Mining and Technology has developed a major cave and karst Ph.D.-granting program headed by Penelope J. Boston. This state legislature funded initiative complements and supports the fledgling National Cave and Karst Research Institute (NCKRI) in Carlsbad, N.M. Currently, the National Park Service (NPS), New Mexico Tech and the city of Carlsbad are primary partners for developing NCKRI into a broader, international coalition of cave and karst programs. Representatives of a diverse set of academic, governmental, and private cave and karst programs met for two days in October to discuss NCKRI's future. In addition, the city and NPS are working towards the construction of an approximately $4 million headquarters to house educational, laboratory, library and office facilities (http://www2.nature.nps.gov/nckri/news.htm).

A landmark article published in the August 2003 Journal of Cave and Karst Studies introduced Western scientists to the terminology and conceptual framework of Russian-led research on the ontogeny of secondary cave minerals. The heavily illustrated Charles A. Self and Carol A. Hill paper, "How Speleothems Grow: An Introduction to the Ontogeny of Cave Minerals," helps transform the traditionally descriptive Western approach regarding cave mineralogy towards a genetic perspective. They describe ontogeny as the study of individual crystals, how these crystals combine as aggregates and their development processes. The great variety of speleothem forms developed by a few common mineral species has proven ideal for ontogeny studies, according to the authors.

Previously identified trends continued to draw growing attention. As water issues become more critical, demands for better understanding, monitoring, and stewardship of karst aquifers escalate. The state of Florida and the Edwards Aquifer Authority in Texas continued multi-million dollar programs addressing these needs. Speleothems and surface travertine deposits persisted in providing important, often high resolution paleoclimatic data. Multidisciplinary studies of sulfur-based and other chemoautotrophic ecosystems drew enthusiastic attention from the media and planetary scientists who see these systems as potential analogues for life on other planets, such as Mars and Io.

Original exploration and mapping of caves throughout the world continues to extend our understanding of these systems. An international team led by Ukrainian geologist Alexander Klimchouk continued exploration in world's deepest explored cave, Voronja Cave in the West Caucasus Mountains of Georgia. They discovered a pit near the bottom of the cave that they were unable to descend due to a lack of sufficient rope. It appears certain that descending and mapping this pit will significantly increase the cave's current world depth record of 1,710 meters below the surface. The team anticipates an expedition to the pit this summer. Exploration continues in Mammoth Cave, Ky., and the surveyed length of that system stood at 579 kilometers in December 2003. Unexplored passages in thousands of caves around the world promise abundant new cave and karst research challenges and discoveries.

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Hose is the director of the National Cave and Karst Research Institute in Carlsbad, N.M. E-mail: Lhose@cemrc.org.

Links:
Karst Waters Institute conference (http://www.karstwaters.org/epikarst/epikarst.htm)
National Cave and Karst Research Institute (http://www2.nature.nps.gov/nckri/) and construction of new facilities (http://www2.nature.nps.gov/nckri/news.htm)
"How Speleothems Grow: An Introduction to the Ontogeny of Cave Minerals," Self and Hill, Journal of Cave and Karst Studies, August 2003 (http://www.caves.org/pub/journal/PDF/V65/v65n2-Self.pdf)
State of Florida springs Web site (http://www.dep.state.fl.us/springs/)
Edwards Aquifer Authority in Texas (http://www.edwardsaquifer.org/)

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