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May 01 2012

Geological Pilgrimage: Real Crystal Magic

When I was a child, my mother read me books and told me stories. Then, out of plots, she told me I was old enough to make up my own stories. So I did. I filled them with unicorns living in crystal-studded caves. Of course unicorns had to live in crystal-studded caves. As I got older, I saw gorgeous caves, glorious caves. We went to Fantastic Caverns in Missouri, and it was indeed fantastic. The piece of aqua-blue cave glass we bought there stood in for the crystals of my imagination for quite a long time.

I’ve seen what calcite can do when water saturated with it drips and drops from ceilings and pools on floors in an underground silent save for the sound of water. I’ve seen a cavern in the desert that put everything else to shame. But magnificent caves with their walls glittering with enormous crystals remained fantasy – until Cueva de los Cristales.

Cueva de los cristales. Image Credit: OggiScienza and La Venta.

One thing I’ve learned as I’ve gotten older: anything I can dream, the universe can do better. These are selenite crystals so big they dwarf the people exploring the caverns. There are crystals in there that are 11 meters long. 36 feet. A crystal that large wouldn’t fit in my living room. I’m not even sure it would fit in my apartment.

This is an extreme place. The scientists exploring it are dealing with temperatures hotter than Death Valley in summer and humidity like a rainforest in the wet season. No dry heat here. If you want to do geology in this place, you suit up in specially-designed suits, and even then, you don’t last long.

So this is what happens when a fault cracks the Earth open above a magma chamber, and gypsum-rich water gets to steam gently for 500,000 years.

Fantasy led me to science to begin with. Given the chance to go on a geological pilgrimage, this is where I would go: to a place where reality trumps fantasy, and geology shows that the human imagination, while a wonderful thing, can never quite measure up to the size of even one pale blue dot.

 

Image credit: OggiScienza and La Venta under a Creative Commons license. See La Venta’s exploration of Cueva de los Cristales here.

7 comments

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  1. 1
    StevoR : Free West Papua, free Tibet, let the Chagossians return!

    Whoah! Love this post. Cheers. :-)

  2. 2
    F [i'm not here, i'm gone]

    Nice. Yeah, I saw the show this this clip is from, I believe, or another like it, a year or two ago. It was way cool. But since the water is mostly drained, they won’t grow any more. (Sadz!) And IIRC, something to do with the mining or lack of hot mineral water will eventually cause them to erode or collapse. Anyway, I got to watch an hour program on this, thanks to science. Geology kicks ass.

  3. 3
    Trebuchet

    @F: I think I heard something to the effect that the mining company, having extracted most of the resources, was going to stop pumping the water out before too long, allowing the cave to refill. This was leading to some urgency among the scientists to get their studies done. I’ll have to try to look it up.

    1. 3.1
      F [i'm not here, i'm gone]

      Oh, sweet. Science better get a good look before it is completely inaccessible again. (Then again, if full of water, ROVs could investigate crystal growth and more.)

  4. 4
    The Bobs

    Those crystals are being destroyed by draining the cave. Most of the large ones have broken.

  5. 5
    Sparks

    Beyond awesome…..almost looks photoshopped, but it’s beyond that as well. Wow!

  6. 6
    Nele

    The real world is such a fucking awesome place! :O

    Nele

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