Thesis: Geology: Ohio Caverns &amp Cave Formations

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Ohio Caverns, Geology, And Cave Formation

The following paper explores the fascinating and natural wonders of Ohio Caverns, the premier cave system in the state of Ohio, the general geology of the state of Ohio, and a basic overview of cave formation related to the various geological features of a limestone-based cavern system such as found in Ohio Caverns. In addition, this paper will briefly examine how Ohio Caverns compares to other cave systems in the world, especially to Carlsbad Caverns in the state of New Mexico.

The formation of a cavern system is perhaps one of the most amazing aspects of geology, due to the fact that caverns often display formations and features that seemingly defy natural forces like gravity, erosion and the passage of time. Generally, the most common type of cavern system is based on limestone, a "sedimentary rock made up of calcium deposits laid down in the earth's strata over millions of years" and which when placed under extreme pressure turns into marble and related metamorphic rocks (Gilbreath, 145). These types of limestone-based caverns are known as solution caves which are created through the interaction of various gases (i.e., CO2) and water seeping down from above. This combination of CO2 and water creates carbonic acid which then dissolves the limestone and carries with it minerals dissolved into a solution.

As time passes, often after millions of years, carbolic acid dissolves the underlying limestone to produce cracks and fissures which then expand as the carbolic acid continues its course, thus producing huge underground areas and spaces which then become caverns. Of course, in many of these limestone-based cavern systems, one finds some type of naturally-occurring drainage system, such as a stream or small, fast-moving river which also helps to increase the size of the cavern (Palmer, 213). Thus, over the passage of great lengths of time, these caverns evolve geologically into vast underground systems that can cover hundreds of miles, all because of the interaction of carbolic acid and limestone. Under most circumstances, large cavern systems cannot be seen from the surface; however, there are often features which give away their existence, such as sinkholes or depressions in the ground or perhaps a stream which runs its course aboveground and then disappears into nowhere (Palmer, 215).

Geologically, the state of Ohio is a prime candidate for these types of cavern systems, due to specific regions of the state being underlain with limestone (i.e., calcium carbonate) which was deposited millions of years ago when the whole region of the Great Lakes was underwater. Of course, there is also sandstone deposits which helped to create Ohio's great river system, particularly the Ohio River Basin in the south. Dating back as far as the Cambrian Period, Ohio limestone and other sedimentary rocks experienced a number of upheavals related to geologic movement beneath the strata, therefore creating bands of limestone, sandstone, shale and selected metamorphic rocks with the youngest located in the southeast region of the state and the oldest in the southwest (Robertson, 215), where we find the city of Dayton and West Liberty, the home of Ohio Caverns.

According to its official website, Ohio Caverns, located in Champaign County, stands as one of the most dazzling natural features of the state and as described above, was created "when an underground river cut through ancient limestone" ("Ohio Caverns," Internet) and left behind immense rooms and passageways that twist and turn in all directions. Ohio Caverns is also the home of a wide variety of geological features found nowhere else in the state, such as crystal stalagmites which grow from the ground up through the slow deposition of calcium, stalactites which descend from the ceiling through the same process as stalagmites, and other strange and beautiful formations.

Ohio Caverns also has the distinction of being the largest cavern system in the state with over two miles of passageways ranging in depth from 30 to 103 feet. The limestone which makes up this cavern system is often referred to as Columbus Grey and some of the crystals found here have been estimated to be 250,000 years old. To this very day, Ohio Caverns continues to grow and expand as a result of underground water that courses from its source above and deep into the earth ("Ohio Caverns," Internet).

A visitor can also find some of the most spectacular crystal formations anywhere in the United States. The most well-known of the crystal formations is called the "Crystal King" and is composed of calcite, a carbonate mineral (calcium carbonate, CaCO3), which in a cavern system often produces crystals of extreme delicacy (Robertson, 214). As a stalactite, this "Crystal King" "is one of the largest and most perfectly formed. . . In any cave" and is almost five feet long and estimated to weigh around 400 pounds. Not surprisingly, this crystal formation drips calcium carbonate via carbolic acid reaction even today, drop by drop, ever increasing its length and mass ("Ohio Caverns," Internet).

Along with these magnificent formations, there are also a number of strange limestone creations, ranging from "wavy ribbons of luminous white stone to upside-down forests of tiny straws that twist, turn and curl upon themselves" ("Ohio Caverns," Internet) as if defying the force of gravity itself. Some of these formations contain impregnations of iron oxides which give them a distinctive color, ranging from brown to light yellow. And like many other cavern systems found in the United States, Ohio Caverns possesses immense open chambers or rooms, some of which cover more than half an acre and are filled with a stunning array of crystal formations ("Ohio Caverns," Internet).

For some reason, there are not too many other cavern systems in the state of Ohio that come close in comparison. One of these is known as Crystal Cave, located in the same general area as Ohio Caverns. This system also contains "remarkably well-developed. . . white to slightly blue crystals of celestite," a mineral similar to silica and composed of strontium sulfate (Palmer, 175) which can be found lining the limestone walls. However, Crystal Cave is nowhere near as large nor spectacular as Ohio Caverns, although it does contain a number of impressive stalactites, stalagmites and other geological features familiar to most cavern systems located in the Midwest.

In comparison to other known cavern systems worldwide, Ohio Caverns appears to be quite unique, due to its strategic location in the vast limestone deposits of southwest Ohio and to the amount of surface and underground water sources in this region of the state. However, there are two specific cavern systems in the United States which should be mentioned because of their geological importance and size.

The first of these well-known cavern systems is Mammoth Cave, located in the heartland of the state of Kentucky and viewed as the longest cave system in the world.

This vast system is part of the Mammoth-Flint Ridge cave system and was established in 1941 as a national park. Geologically, Mammoth Cave, unlike Ohio Caverns, is mostly made up of sandstone which under normal conditions does not allow the formation of stalactites and stalagmites and related formations. Also, as compared to Ohio Caverns, the Mammoth Cave system is relatively dry despite the fact that the cave itself was formed by the flow of fast-moving water, much like the Grand Canyon in the state of Arizona. One excellent feature of Mammoth Cave is known as the Frozen Niagara room which resembles a waterfall composed of different layers of sandstone and limestone, the two sedimentary rocks which make up a good portion of the region in which Mammoth Cave exists (Gilbreath, 236).

The second well-known and perhaps most famous cavern system in the U.S. is Carlsbad Caverns, located in the state of New Mexico and discovered by accident by a rancher searching for stray cattle in the early 1920's. Like Ohio Caverns, Carlsbad Caverns contains some of the most spectacular stalactites, stalagmites and related geological features found anywhere in the world, due to the existence of vast deposits of limestone. This cavern system also contains what are known as soda straws which are very narrow calcite deposits that often defy gravity. There are also layers of calcite known as flowstone which appears to be flowing water or draperies on the floors and walls of the cave and cave pearls, "composed of thousands of layers of calcite wrapped around tiny grains of sand or other rock fragments" (Palmer, 276).

Also like Ohio Caverns, Carlsbad Caverns contains a huge amount of crystals that twist and turn in all directions. Some of these are called helictites (depositional speleothems), composed of a special type of calcite and which bear a resemblance to tiny hairs or filaments. One also finds deposits of aragonite, a form of calcite but with a different crystalline structure which takes on the shape of very delicate needles (Palmer, 278). It should be mentioned that Carlsbad Caverns is the largest cavern system known in the U.S. And has a room some 900… [END OF PREVIEW]

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