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Mexican Crystal Cave
by Mateo Garcia-Chacon
Physical Geology
Fall 2015
  
 
                               
 The Missing Wonder of the World
                               The Mexican Crystal Cave
 

          There is no doubt that our Earth is filled with many wonders. These natural wonders such as, the seas, mountains, forests, animals, and the Seven Wonders of the World are all beautiful. What makes these things even better is that they are all found on the Earth’s surface. Yet many of the Earth’s true splendors of nature are not visible from the surface, but underground. Caves are some of the most beautiful features created by the Earth. However, they are not considered one of the Seven Natural Wonders, because of how difficult it can be to visit a cave. One such cave that has gone ignored in terms of being a natural wonder, is the Cueva de los Cristales, commonly known as the Giant Crystal Cave. The cave is located in Chihuahua, Mexico, in the Naica Silver Mine. However, it is not the only giant crystal cave, and the chemical makeup of the crystals in each cave is unique to the cave in which they were formed. This paper will discuss the unique conditions that helped the crystals form, what makes these crystals special, as well as the other recently discovered cave “The Ice Palace” (Ther).


 

http://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2007/04/photogalleries/giant-crystals-cave/images/primary/crystal-cave-4.jpghttp://i.ytimg.com/vi/laMZAJ2L_1Y/maxresdefault.jpg

 

            The Giant Crystal Cave, or as it is called by scientists “The Sistine Chapel of Crystals” (source), is exactly as the name suggests; a cave filled with giant crystals. The cave resembles something similar to a cathedral with the atmosphere of “permanence and tranquility” (source). The crystals are located in a thirty foot by ninety foot cave, which is located approximately a thousand feet underground. The crystal cave in Naica is a wonder, because there is no other one like it. Even though there are other crystal caves, the one in Naica is unique. It is unique because it only has crystals growing in it, unlike other caves which have formations like stalactites or stalagmites. The time and manner in which the cave was discovered is also unique.
 

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            The first scientific expedition performed by National Geographic in 2001, was covered by journalist Neil Shea. In his article, Shea discusses the finding of the cave, its inhospitable environment, as well as how it was formed. According to the article, the cave was discovered “in 2000 by a pair of brothers drilling nearly a thousand feet below ground in the Naica mine, one of Mexico's most productive, yielding tons of lead and silver each year” (Shea). Although, National Geographic did not name the brothers, another article called, “Cave of the Giant Crystals”, identifies the brothers as Juan and Pedro Sanchez. According to Shea, Naica, an hour south of Chihuahua, is one of Mexico’s largest providers of lead and silver, and has always been a place where large pockets of crystals are found.
 

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The environment that made the location rich in lead and silver, also aided in the formation of the crystals. “The geologic processes that create lead and silver also provide raw materials for crystals, and at Naica, miners had hammered into chambers of impressive, though much smaller, crystals before…” (Shea).  It is no surprise then, that another cavern filled with crystals was found. However, it was their size that astonished scientists. These crystals are selenite and gypsum crystals. “Selenite crystals [are] made up of calcium carbonate or CaCO3” (Leela Hutchison), and “gypsum crystals [are] made up of hydrous calcium sulfate or CaSO4.2H2O” (The Giant Crystal Project), which did not begin to develop until the cave was discovered. Although the chemical makeup of the crystals is common, what is amazing is the size and age of the crystals. As National Geographic states, “some more than 30 feet long and half a million years old” (Shea). The expedition was led by a team of five scientists Giovanni Badino, a physicist from the Italian exploration group La Venta, Spanish crystallographer Juan Manuel García-Ruiz, Stein-Erik Lauritzen, a professor of Geology at the University of Bergen in Norway, Penelope Boston an associate professor of Cave and Karst Science at New Mexico Tech, and Italian scientist Anna Maria Mercuri. The expedition crew were accompanied by the National Geographic film crew and journalist Neil Shea.
 

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According to Shea’s article, the mine in Naica where the crystal cave is found is different from others. The difference is that in most caves and mines the temperature remains constant and cool, but the Naica mine gets hotter due to the proximity of magma, that lies about a mile below the surface. The temperature rises to about 112 degrees Fahrenheit with 90 to 100 percent humidity. These conditions make the caves unbearable; which results in anyone who enters the cave, for extended periods of time, having to wear specially made coats have ice packs sewn across the chest and back. Crystallographer Juan Manuel Garcia-Ruiz and his colleagues examined the bubbles of liquid trapped inside the crystals, in order to piece together the story of the crystals' growth. They came to the conclusion that;

For hundreds of thousands of years, groundwater saturated with calcium sulfate filtered through the many caves at Naica, warmed by heat from the magma below. As the magma cooled, water temperature inside the cave eventually stabilized at about 136°F. At this temperature minerals in the water began converting to selenite, molecules of which were laid down like tiny bricks to form crystals. In other caves under the mountain, the temperature fluctuated or the environment was somehow disturbed, resulting in different and smaller crystals. But inside the Cave of Crystals, conditions remained unchanged for millennia. Above ground, volcanoes exploded and ice sheets pulverized the continents. Human generations came and went. Below, enwombed in silence and near complete stasis, the crystals steadily grew. Only around 1985, when miners using massive pumps lowered the water table and unknowingly drained the cave, did the process of accretion stop (Cavern of Crystal Giants).


          Not only did the way the crystals form allow them to grow so large, but it also makes them very old. Professor Stein-Erik Lauritzen retrieved samples for uranium-thorium dating, and suggests that the largest of the crystals are about six hundred thousand years old.

 

Not only does the size and age of the crystals found in Naica make them a scientist’s dream, but what also makes them special is what was found inside of them. The same fluid which helped crystallographer Garcia-Ruiz determine how the crystals were formed, also gave Professor Penelope Boston a glimpse into the Earth’s past. According to Professor Boston the fluid within the crystals holds microbes, and these microbes tell scientists about how the surface above the mine looked in the past. “Scientist Anna Maria Mercuri collected pollen that may have been trapped within these inclusions” (Shea). Mercuri found that some grains appeared to be thirty thousand years old, and suggests that this part of Mexico was once covered, not by desert, but by forest (Shea). It is not just how these crystals formed, how big they are, and what stories they tell that makes this cave so special; it is also the feeling one gets from it. This feeling is best described by scientist Giovanni Badino, “ ‘Es como un sueño de niño’ he says. ‘It is like a child's dream’ ” (Shea). Little did scientists know, that is was not the end of that childlike wonder.
 

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In 2009 another chamber was found, when a camera attached to a drill bit used to drill a Robin Hole, a 2,000 foot deep ventilation shaft meant to cool mining tunnels below (Ther). After it was confirmed by scientists that the footage on the camera indicated another chamber, preparations for another scientific expedition were made. That same year a team led by the only returning scientist from the Naica expedition, Penelope Boston, and new scientists Danielle Winget, a biologist at the University of British Columbia, and Curtis Suttle, a biologist at University of British Columbia, discovered a new cave system. This second crystal cave is just as amazing as the Giant Crystal Cave, not because of the size of the crystals, but because of how they formed. The new chamber was properly named the Ice Palace, “the new cave lacks giant pillars, but sparkles with rare crystal formations, including minerals resembling cauliflower and fiber-optic-like filaments” (Ther). The Ice Palace has the same chemical makeup as the Giant Crystal Cave. However, it is the new findings that have amazed scientists during the second expedition.
 

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During this expedition Boston and Winget discovered bacteria and viruses that provided incredible information on the formation of the caves (Ther). The finding of the viruses was not the expedition’s most surprising microbial discovery. “Analysis of bacterial DNA from the Cave of Crystals showed that the tiny life-forms are related to microbes living in other extreme environments around the world, including caves in South Africa and Australia as well as hydrothermal vents” (Ther). Everyone was baffled by the fact that they found patterns in bacteria that were similar to other places that are separated by great distances. Professor Suttle said, “we don't really understand how it is that the organisms in a hydrothermal vent in Greece or a deep gold mine in South Africa are related to organisms that we find in a subsurface cave” (Ther). This phenomena has created another mystery, which scientists have yet to solve.
 

Unfortunately that is where it ends. Scientists still do not understand how the DNA found in Naica’s crystal caves, is the same as the DNA found in African gold mines. Though Professor Boston has speculated that, “…‘there may be residual pockets of geothermal activity that could provide a zone where water could be liquid and where chemically reduced gases from below can percolate up and act as a nutrient source,’ as in the Cave of Crystals…” (Ther). What this speculation suggests is that before these cave systems formed, there were pockets of ground of water, above the body of magma that resulted in geothermal energy. This rose the water temperature to boiling point, but due to the extreme pressure kept it as a liquid. As time passed, the water made its way through the rock and spread in different directions. The water then made its way up near the surface, and possibly caused the microbial similarity with Naica, Australia, Africa, and Greece.
 

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The Giant Crystal Cave and the Ice Palace are a scientist’s dream because they both formed in a way that has never been seen anywhere else on Earth. It is also a natural wonder because these two caves show that there is both a geological and microbial link between Naica, Australia, Africa, and Greece which scientist’s still cannot figure out. Even with this mystery still at hand the Giant Crystal Cave and the Ice Palace are two of Earth’s greatest natural wonders, and is something which should be treasured and protected. These caves should be cherished and protected not only because of their extravagant beauty and scientific mysteries they hold, but because they also leave the question of what else is hidden beneath our feet?
 

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"Cave of the Giant Crystals, Mexico - Crystalinks." Cave of the Giant Crystals, Mexico - Crystalinks. Web.     
          16 Oct. 2015. <http://www.crystalinks.com/mexicocrystals.html>.

Hutchison, Leela. "Leela Hutchison: The Naica Crystals Are the Largest Natural Marvels on the Planet and are Located in Naica, Chihuahua, Mexico." 
Leela Hutchison: The Naica Crystals Are the Largest  Natural Marvels on the Planet and Are Located in Naica, Chihuahua, Mexico. 19 Oct. 2010. Web.  2 Sept. 2015. <http://thecrystalgiants.com/res.php>.
 

Shea, Neil. "Cavern of Crystal Giants." Cave of Crystal Giants. National Geographic, 1 Nov. 2008. Web. 8 Sept. 2015. <http://ngm.nationalgeographic.com/2008/11/crystal-giants/shea-text/1>.
 

"The Giant Crystal Project : Gypsum Crystals of the Naica Mine, Mexico."The Giant Crystal Project : Gypsum Crystals of the Naica Mine, Mexico. Web. 9 Sept. 2015.        <http://giantcrystals.strahlen.org/america/naica.htm>.
 

Ther, Ker. "Giant Crystal Caves Yield New "Ice Palace," More." National Geographic. National Geographic Society, 8 Oct. 2010. Web. 8 Sept. 2015.     <http://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2010/10/101007-lost-crystal-caves-mexicoscience-mine-superman-ice-palace/>.