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A speleothem (; ) is a
geological formation A geological formation, or simply formation, is a body of rock having a consistent set of physical characteristics (lithology) that distinguishes it from adjacent bodies of rock, and which occupies a particular position in the layers of rock expo ...
by mineral deposits that accumulate over time in natural
cave A cave or cavern is a natural void in the ground, specifically a space large enough for a human to enter. Caves often form by the weathering of rock and often extend deep underground. The word ''cave'' can refer to smaller openings such as sea ...
s. Speleothems most commonly form in
calcareous Calcareous () is an adjective meaning "mostly or partly composed of calcium carbonate", in other words, containing lime or being chalky. The term is used in a wide variety of scientific disciplines. In zoology ''Calcareous'' is used as an adj ...
caves due to carbonate dissolution reactions. They can take a variety of forms, depending on their depositional history and environment. Their chemical composition, gradual growth, and preservation in caves make them useful paleoclimatic proxies.


Chemical and physical characteristics

More than 300 variations of cave mineral deposits have been identified. The vast majority of speleothems are calcareous, composed of calcium carbonate (CaCO3) minerals (
calcite Calcite is a carbonate mineral and the most stable polymorph of calcium carbonate (CaCO3). It is a very common mineral, particularly as a component of limestone. Calcite defines hardness 3 on the Mohs scale of mineral hardness, based on scrat ...
or aragonite). Less commonly, speleothems are made of
calcium sulfate Calcium sulfate (or calcium sulphate) is the inorganic compound with the formula CaSO4 and related hydrates. In the form of γ-anhydrite (the anhydrous form), it is used as a desiccant. One particular hydrate is better known as plaster of Paris ...
(
gypsum Gypsum is a soft sulfate mineral composed of calcium sulfate dihydrate, with the chemical formula . It is widely mined and is used as a fertilizer and as the main constituent in many forms of plaster, blackboard or sidewalk chalk, and drywa ...
or
mirabilite Mirabilite, also known as Glauber's salt, is a hydrous sodium sulfate mineral with the chemical formula Na2SO4·10H2O. It is a vitreous, colorless to white monoclinic mineral that forms as an evaporite from sodium sulfate-bearing brines. It is fo ...
) or
opal Opal is a hydrated amorphous form of silica (SiO2·''n''H2O); its water content may range from 3 to 21% by weight, but is usually between 6 and 10%. Due to its amorphous property, it is classified as a mineraloid, unlike crystalline forms o ...
. Speleothems of pure calcium carbonate or calcium sulfate are translucent and colorless. The presence of
iron oxide Iron oxides are chemical compounds composed of iron and oxygen. Several iron oxides are recognized. All are black magnetic solids. Often they are non-stoichiometric. Oxyhydroxides are a related class of compounds, perhaps the best known of whic ...
or copper provides a reddish brown color. The presence of
manganese oxide Manganese oxide is any of a variety of manganese oxides and hydroxides.Wells A.F. (1984) ''Structural inorganic chemistry'' 5th edition Oxford Science Publications, . These include * Manganese(II) oxide, MnO * Manganese(II,III) oxide, Mn3O4 * Mang ...
can create darker colors such as black or dark brown. Speleothems can also be brown due to the presence of mud and
silt Silt is granular material of a size between sand and clay and composed mostly of broken grains of quartz. Silt may occur as a soil (often mixed with sand or clay) or as sediment mixed in suspension with water. Silt usually has a floury feel wh ...
. Many factors impact the shape and color of speleothems, including the chemical composition of the rock and water, water seepage rate, water flow direction, cave temperature, cave humidity, air currents, aboveground climate, and aboveground plant cover. Weaker flows and short travel distances form narrower stalagmites, while heavier flow and a greater fall distance tend to form broader ones.


Formation processes

Most cave chemistry involves calcium carbonate (CaCO3) containing rocks such as
limestone Limestone ( calcium carbonate ) is a type of carbonate sedimentary rock which is the main source of the material lime. It is composed mostly of the minerals calcite and aragonite, which are different crystal forms of . Limestone forms whe ...
or
dolomite Dolomite may refer to: *Dolomite (mineral), a carbonate mineral *Dolomite (rock), also known as dolostone, a sedimentary carbonate rock * Dolomite, Alabama, United States, an unincorporated community * Dolomite, California, United States, an uninc ...
, composed of
calcite Calcite is a carbonate mineral and the most stable polymorph of calcium carbonate (CaCO3). It is a very common mineral, particularly as a component of limestone. Calcite defines hardness 3 on the Mohs scale of mineral hardness, based on scrat ...
or aragonite minerals. Carbonate minerals are more
soluble In chemistry, solubility is the ability of a substance, the solute, to form a solution with another substance, the solvent. Insolubility is the opposite property, the inability of the solute to form such a solution. The extent of the solubili ...
in the presence of higher
carbon dioxide Carbon dioxide ( chemical formula ) is a chemical compound made up of molecules that each have one carbon atom covalently double bonded to two oxygen atoms. It is found in the gas state at room temperature. In the air, carbon dioxide is tran ...
(CO2) and lower temperatures. Calcareous speleothems form via carbonate dissolution reactions whereby rainwater reacts with soil CO2 to create weakly acidic water via the reaction: :H2O + CO2H2CO3 As the acidic water travels through the calcium carbonate bedrock from the surface to the cave ceiling, it dissolves the bedrock via the reaction: :CaCO3 + H2CO3 → Ca2+ + 2 HCO3 When the solution reaches a cave, the lower pCO2 in the cave drives the
precipitation In meteorology, precipitation is any product of the condensation of atmospheric water vapor that falls under gravitational pull from clouds. The main forms of precipitation include drizzle, rain, sleet, snow, ice pellets, graupel and hail. ...
of CaCO3 via the reaction: :Ca2+ + 2 HCO3 → CaCO3 + H2O + CO2 Over time, the accumulation of these precipitates form dripstones ( stalagmites, stalactites), and
flowstone Flowstones are sheetlike deposits of calcite or other carbonate minerals, formed where water flows down the walls or along the floors of a cave. They are typically found in "solution caves", in limestone, where they are the most common speleothe ...
s, two of the major types of speleothems.


Climate proxies

Speleothem transects can provide paleoclimate records similar to those from ice cores or tree rings. Slow geometrical growth and incorporation of radioactive elements enables speleothems to be accurately and precisely dated over much of the late Quaternary by
radiocarbon dating Radiocarbon dating (also referred to as carbon dating or carbon-14 dating) is a method for determining the age of an object containing organic material by using the properties of radiocarbon, a radioactive isotope of carbon. The method was de ...
and uranium-thorium dating, as long as the cave is a closed system and the speleothem has not undergone recrystallization. Oxygen ( δ18O) and carbon ( δ13C) stable isotopes are used to track variation in rainfall temperature, precipitation, and vegetation changes over the past ~500,000 years. Variations in precipitation alter the width of speleothem rings: closed rings indicates little rainfall, wider spacing indicates heavier rainfall, and denser rings indicate higher moisture. Drip rate counting and trace element analysis of the water drops record short-term climate variations, such as El Niño–Southern Oscillation (ENSO) climate events. Exceptionally, climate proxy data from the early
Permian The Permian ( ) is a geologic period and stratigraphic system which spans 47 million years from the end of the Carboniferous Period million years ago (Mya), to the beginning of the Triassic Period 251.9 Mya. It is the last period of the Paleoz ...
period have been retrieved from speleothems dated to 289 million years ago sourced from infilled caves exposed by quarrying at the Richards Spur locality in Oklahoma.


Types and categories

Speleothems take various forms, depending on whether the water drips, seeps, condenses, flows, or ponds. Many speleothems are named for their resemblance to man-made or natural objects. Types of speleothems include:Hill, C A, and Forti, P, (1997). Cave Minerals of the World, (2nd edition). untsville, Alabama: National Speleological Society Inc.pp. 217, 225 * Dripstone is calcium carbonate in the form of stalactites or stalagmites ** Stalactites are pointed pendants hanging from the cave ceiling, from which they grow ***
Soda straw A soda straw (or simply straw) is a speleothem in the form of a hollow mineral cylindrical tube. They are also known as tubular stalactites. Soda straws grow in places where water leaches slowly through cracks in rock, such as on the roofs of cav ...
s are very thin but long stalactites with an elongated cylindrical shape rather than the usual more conical shape of stalactites ***
Helictite A helictite is a speleothem (cave-formed mineral) found in a limestone cave that changes its axis from the vertical at one or more stages during its growth. Helictites have a curving or angular form that looks as if they were grown in zero gr ...
s are stalactites that have a central canal with twig-like or spiral projections that appear to defy gravity **** Include forms known as ribbon helictites, saws, rods, butterflies, hands, curly-fries, and "clumps of worms" *** Chandeliers are complex clusters of ceiling decorations *** Ribbon stalactites, or simply "ribbons", are shaped accordingly ** Stalagmites are the "ground-up" counterparts of stalactites, often blunt mounds *** Broomstick stalagmites are very tall and spindly *** Totem pole stalagmites are also tall and shaped like their namesakes *** Fried egg stalagmites are small, typically wider than they are tall ** Stalagnate results when stalactites and stalagmites meet or when stalactites reach the floor of the cave *
Flowstone Flowstones are sheetlike deposits of calcite or other carbonate minerals, formed where water flows down the walls or along the floors of a cave. They are typically found in "solution caves", in limestone, where they are the most common speleothe ...
is sheet like and found on cave floors and walls ** Draperies or curtains are thin, wavy sheets of calcite hanging downward *** Bacon is a drapery with variously colored bands within the sheet ** Rimstone dams, or gours, occur at stream ripples and form barriers that may contain water ** Stone waterfall formations simulate frozen cascades * Cave crystals ** Dogtooth spar are large calcite crystals often found near seasonal pools **
Frostwork In geology, frostwork is a type of speleothem (cave formation) with acicular ("needle-like") growths almost always composed of aragonite (a polymorph of calcite) or calcite replaced aragonite. It is a variety of anthodite. Frostwork can also be ...
is needle-like growths of calcite or aragonite ** Moonmilk is white and cheese-like **
Anthodite Anthodites ( Greek ἄνθος ''ánthos'', "flower", ''-ode'', adjectival combining form, ''-ite'' adjectival suffix) are speleothems (cave formations) composed of long needle-like crystals situated in clusters which radiate outward from a commo ...
s are flower-like clusters of aragonite crystals ** ''Cryogenic'' calcite crystals are loose grains of calcite found on the floors of caves formed by segregation of solutes during freezing of water. * Speleogens (technically distinct from speleothems) are formations within caves that are created by the removal of
bedrock In geology, bedrock is solid rock that lies under loose material ( regolith) within the crust of Earth or another terrestrial planet. Definition Bedrock is the solid rock that underlies looser surface material. An exposed portion of ...
, rather than as secondary deposits. These include: ** Pillars ** Scallops ** Boneyard **
Boxwork In geology, boxwork is defined as a honeycomb-like structure that can form in some fractured or jointed sedimentary rocks. If the fractures in the host rock are mineralized, they can become more resistant to weathering than the surrounding rock, ...
* Others ** Cave popcorn, also known as "coralloids" or "cave coral", are small, knobby clusters of calcite ** Cave pearls are the result of water dripping from high above, causing small "seed" crystals to turn over so often that they form into near-perfect spheres of calcium carbonate ** Snottites are colonies of predominantly sulfur oxidizing bacteria and have the consistency of "snot", or mucus ** Calcite rafts are thin accumulations of calcite that appear on the surface of cave pools ** Hells Bells, a particular speleothem found in the El Zapote
cenote A cenote ( or ; ) is a natural pit, or sinkhole, resulting from the collapse of limestone bedrock that exposes groundwater. The regional term is specifically associated with the Yucatán Peninsula of Mexico, where cenotes were commonly used for ...
of Yucatan in the form of submerged, bell-like shapes **
Lava tubes A lava tube, or pyroduct, is a natural conduit formed by flowing lava from a volcanic vent that moves beneath the hardened surface of a lava flow. If lava in the tube empties, it will leave a cave. Formation A lava tube is a type of lava ...
contain speleothems composed of sulfates, mirabilite or opal. When the lava cools, precipitation occurs.


Calthemites

The usual definition of speleothem excludes secondary mineral deposits derived from
concrete Concrete is a composite material composed of fine and coarse aggregate bonded together with a fluid cement (cement paste) that hardens (cures) over time. Concrete is the second-most-used substance in the world after water, and is the most ...
, lime, mortar, or other calcareous material (e.g. limestone and dolomite) outside the cave environment or in artificial caves (e.g. mines, tunnels), which can have similar shapes and forms as speleothems. Such secondary deposits in man-made structures are termed
calthemite Calthemite is a secondary deposit, derived from concrete, lime, mortar or other calcareous material outside the cave environment.Smith, G.K. (2016). "Calcite straw stalactites growing from concrete structures", Cave and Karst Science 43(1), 4 ...
s. Calthemites are often associated with concrete degradation, or due to leaching of lime, mortar, or other calcareous material.


Gallery

File:HallOfTheMountainKings.jpg, Various formations in the Hall of the Mountain Kings, Ogof Craig a Ffynnon,
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,
Great Britain Great Britain is an island in the North Atlantic Ocean off the northwest coast of continental Europe. With an area of , it is the largest of the British Isles, the largest European island and the ninth-largest island in the world. It is d ...
File:NaturalBridgeCaverns6.jpg, Stalactites and columns in Natural Bridge Caverns,
Texas Texas (, ; Spanish: ''Texas'', ''Tejas'') is a state in the South Central region of the United States. At 268,596 square miles (695,662 km2), and with more than 29.1 million residents in 2020, it is the second-largest U.S. state by ...
File:NaturalBridgeCaverns7.jpg, More formations in Natural Bridge Caverns,
Texas Texas (, ; Spanish: ''Texas'', ''Tejas'') is a state in the South Central region of the United States. At 268,596 square miles (695,662 km2), and with more than 29.1 million residents in 2020, it is the second-largest U.S. state by ...
File:Kl 0005356.jpg, Cave curtain formation in the Marble Arch Caves,
County Fermanagh County Fermanagh ( ; ) is one of the thirty-two counties of Ireland, one of the nine counties of Ulster and one of the six counties of Northern Ireland. The county covers an area of 1,691 km2 (653 sq mi) and has a population of 61,805 a ...
,
Northern Ireland Northern Ireland ( ga, Tuaisceart Éireann ; sco, label= Ulster-Scots, Norlin Airlann) is a part of the United Kingdom, situated in the north-east of the island of Ireland, that is variously described as a country, province or region. Nort ...
File:CaliforniaCaveFormation.jpg, California Caverns, Calaveras County, California; one of many caverns located in the Sierra Foothills of California File:Dripstone column in Biserujka Cave, Dobrinj, Island of Krk.jpg, Stalagnates (columns) in the cave Biserujka, Dobrinj,
Island An island (or isle) is an isolated piece of habitat that is surrounded by a dramatically different habitat, such as water. Very small islands such as emergent land features on atolls can be called islets, skerries, cays or keys. An island ...
Krk,
Croatia , image_flag = Flag of Croatia.svg , image_coat = Coat of arms of Croatia.svg , anthem = "Lijepa naša domovino"("Our Beautiful Homeland") , image_map = , map_caption = , capit ...
File:Druipsteen3.jpg, Various formations in the cave of Remouchamps,
Aywaille Aywaille (; wa, Aiwêye) is a municipality of Wallonia located in the province of Liège, Belgium. On 1 January 2012, Aywaille had a total population of 11,697. The total area is 80.04 km² which gives a population density of 146 inhabit ...
,
Belgium Belgium, ; french: Belgique ; german: Belgien officially the Kingdom of Belgium, is a country in Northwestern Europe. The country is bordered by the Netherlands to the north, Germany to the east, Luxembourg to the southeast, France to t ...
File:Zuil.jpg, Stalagnate (column) in the cave of Remouchamps,
Aywaille Aywaille (; wa, Aiwêye) is a municipality of Wallonia located in the province of Liège, Belgium. On 1 January 2012, Aywaille had a total population of 11,697. The total area is 80.04 km² which gives a population density of 146 inhabit ...
,
Belgium Belgium, ; french: Belgique ; german: Belgien officially the Kingdom of Belgium, is a country in Northwestern Europe. The country is bordered by the Netherlands to the north, Germany to the east, Luxembourg to the southeast, France to t ...
File:Cave pearls.jpg, Image of Cave Pearl formation File:Flowstone in Mammoth Cave, KY.jpg, Image of flowstone in Mammoth Cave, KY


See also

* Petrifying well


References


External links


The Virtual Cave: an online guide to speleothems


* ttps://web.archive.org/web/20130123003018/http://www.nature.nps.gov:80/geology/caves/photo_speleothems.htm Gallery of speleothemsfrom NPS Cave and Karst Program (archived on 23 January 2013) {{Caves Calcium minerals Dinaric Alps Dinaric karst formations Incremental dating Karst formations Karst Limestone Paleoclimatology Speleothems