Secret of Big Caves Revealed by Math

Alexandra Witze

A new mathematical analysis solves a longstanding cave-formation puzzle: how a trickle of water laced with carbonic acid manages to quickly dissolve rock to create massive conduits. The trick, it seems, is that fluid flow focuses rapidly in certain channels, which grow at the expense of others and allow the acid to penetrate deeply. …

… For more than a century, researchers have known the basics of how limestone caves form: A tiny fracture opens in the rock, perhaps due to some internal stress, and water begins percolating through it. Most water contains some carbon dioxide, making it a weak acid that can eat away at the calcium carbonate in limestone. The question is how that dissolution can happen fast enough to produce deep penetration and allow long cave systems to form. The longest known system in the world is Mammoth Cave in Kentucky, with at least 580 kilometers of passageways.

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