Tuesday, February 23, 2016

Mexico's Cave of Crystals

See the man for scale?
Photo by Alexander Van Driessche
The Cave of Crystals, known as Cueva de los Cristales by locals, is the site of the largest natural crystals known to man. It is located roughly 1,000 feet beneath Naica Mountain in Mexico’s Chihuahuan Desert in Chihuahua, Mexico. The Cave of Crystals is the second of such caves found beneath the mountain. The Cave of Swords was discovered at a depth of about 400 feet and contains similar, but smaller, crystals.

The Naica Mine, in which the Cave of Crystals is located, has been the site of silver mining since 1794. Since that time, gold, zinc, lead and now these crystals have been discovered there. The Cave of Crystals was discovered in April of 2000 by two brothers who worked for the Naica Mine. What they saw inside the cave were gypsum crystals, some of which were roughly 40 feet long, up to four feet in diameter and weighing up to 55 tons. The heat inside of the cave was stifling and workers could not spend a significant amount of time there. Nonetheless, an iron door was fitted to act as an entrance to the cave and deter thieves. It didn’t work. Not long after, a miner found a small crevice and snuck into the cave to try and steal some crystals. He suffocated and baked within the cave. His body was found later.

Juan Manuel Garcia-Ruiz of the University of Grenada conducted a study of the crystals and the cave in an attempt to explain why these gypsum crystals are so gigantic compared to others found on Earth. He found small pockets of liquid within the crystals. By studying the liquid, he came to the conclusion that the gypsum crystals were able to grow so large due to two factors: the cave’s steady temperature of roughly 136 degrees Fahrenheit and the mineral rich water that once filled the Cave of Crystals. Juan refers to the cave as “the Sistine Chapel of crystals.”

The stifling heat and humidity in the cave, which is caused by heat emanating from a magma chamber below the mountain, make it impossible for visitors to stay in the cave for very long. Nonetheless, guided tours are available when the cave is open. Visitors have reported hallucinations and brain malfunctions. Some tourists have even collapsed inside the cave and had to be removed. If you are brave enough to enter the beautiful Cave of Crystals, you will see a site that visitors have likened to Superman’s “Fortress of Solitude.”


Lovgren, Stefan, April 6, 2007, National Geographic News, Giant Crystal Cave’s Mystery Solved, retrieved 2/25/10, nationalgeographic.com/news/2007/04/070406-giant-crystals.html

Crystal Cave of Giants in Mexico, retrieved 2/25/10, crystalinks.com/mexicocrystals.html

Thursday, February 18, 2016

The Atlantic Garbage Patch: A Trash Vortex in the Ocean

Trash Litter on a Beach in Malaysia
The Great Pacific Garbage Patch is a relatively familiar problem for some people. They have heard of the huge trash swill that pollutes the northern Pacific Ocean. The trash swill that is so large that it is sometimes referred to as a "continent of garbage." This disgusting swirling mass of plastic and other waste has received some attention in the past few years. Now, a second, similar oceanic garbage patch is gaining some attention. That is the Atlantic Garbage Patch.

The Atlantic Garbage Patch is located in the northern Atlantic Ocean. We know that it is large–much larger than it should be. However, it is hard to determine just how big it is. Like its Pacific counterpart, it is amorphous, making it hard to measure. It is also hard to measure just how much plastic is there. It is much denser in some areas than in others. There is no telling which garbage patch is the larger of the two, at this point.

Millions, if not billions, of tiny pieces of plastic make up the bulk of the Atlantic Garbage Patch. These pieces are so small that they are easily mistaken for krill and plankton by larger fish. In fact, in the Pacific Garbage Patch, the plastic bits outnumber the plankton that feed the larger fish. It is unclear if the plastic is that dense in the Atlantic Garbage Patch. The densest area yet discovered in the Atlantic Garbage Patch by students with the Sea Education Association is 520,000 pieces per square mile. That is roughly half the density of the densest measured area of the Pacific Garbage Patch.

Plastic tends to float in seawater. The plastic in the Atlantic Garbage Patch is no exception. It bobs on or near the surface. It is a floating mass of plastic, as opposed to a solid mass. Ships can sail right through it and animals can swim through it, which probably is not a good thing. In the Atlantic Garbage Patch, most of the trash is small pieces of plastic that have been broken down. In the Pacific, plastic such as visibly whole plastic bags and plastic 6-pack rings can be seen floating beneath the surface. This poses many risks to wildlife.

It is interesting to note that researchers have concluded that the Atlantic Garbage Patch has not grown in the past 22 years. This may seem like a good thing, but it is not. Plastic use has increased exponentially in the past several years. It follows that much more plastic would be finding its way into the Atlantic Garbage Patch. If the researchers are right then the plastic is either sinking or breaking down into such small pieces that it could never be recovered, if the effort was ever made.


Lovett, Richard A., Huge Garbage Patch Found in Atlantic Too, retrieved 9/4/10, news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2010/03/100302-new-ocean-trash-garbage-patch

Friday, February 5, 2016

Mud Volcanoes

Chabahar Mud Volcano
Photo by Amirhossein Nikroo
Mud volcanoes are a less terrifying, but still dangerous cousin of magma volcanoes. They are also known as sedimentary volcanoes and gas-oil volcanoes. These volcanoes occur where there are deep deposits of gas and oil beneath the surface. There seems to be a connection with fault lines as well. Like magma volcanoes, mud volcanoes have dormant and active phases. During their active phases, they do not spew liquid hot rock and ash while causing massive earthquakes and lightning storms, but they are capable of spewing fire and enough mud at such a rate to displace or even kill human beings.

If you want to see a mud volcano, Azerbaijan in Eurasia is the place to go. There are no active magma volcanoes in the area, but there are hundreds of mud volcanoes. In fact, Azerbaijan has most of the mud volcanoes on the planet–more than half. However, most of the mud volcanoes there only emit small amounts of cool mud and gases. They can be between 16 feet and 1,640 feet tall. People do not live close enough to them to be affected by active mud volcanoes in Azerbaijan, but that is not the case in other parts of the world.

In 2006, a mud volcano became a problem in a residential area of Sidoarjo, Indonesia. The volcano appeared, erupted and the resulting mudflow killed thirteen people. Thousands have been forced from their homes by what has become known as the Lusi Mud Flow. The mudflow continues to this day. Interestingly, this extraordinarily large and dangerous mud volcano may not be a natural occurrence. Researchers have reason to believe that a local gas exploration well caused the volcano. Somehow, the pressure created led to a vent opening up and pouring excessive amounts of mud into the area.

There is still a lot to learn about mud volcanoes. They have not been studies as extensively as their noisy and deadly cousins have. We do know that built up pressure beneath the surface is involved in the birth of mud vents. We also know that they do not cause as much damage as magma volcanoes, though they can produce earthquakes and balls of fire. Because it appears they can be triggered by careless drilling, there will doubtless be much more research into what exactly causes them and how we humans can avoid being one of these causes.


Mud Volcanoes in Azerbaijan, retrieved 12/29/10, azerb.com/azmud_volcanoes.htm

Wednesday, February 3, 2016

Jellyfish Lake: Swim Safely With Swarms of Harmless Jellyfish

Jellyfish Lake
Jellyfish Lake
Photo by Onyo
Jellyfish Lake is one of five unique lakes that can be found on Mecherchar Island in Palau, Micronesia. It is known as Ongeim’l Tketau by the locals. What is so unique about these lakes is that they are the only places on Earth where a person can swim with millions of jellyfish without fear of being killed. Jellyfish Lake is the only one of these lakes that is open to the public for swimming and snorkeling. Therefore, it is the most famous.

Jellyfish Lake is a saltwater lake that was once connected to the Pacific Ocean. The lake is roughly 98.4 feet deep and covers an area of 12 acres. When the separation between the lake and the ocean occurred, some species of sea creatures became trapped in the lake. One of these species was the ancestor of the Mastigius jellyfish that now occupy Jellyfish Lake.

Jellyfish Lake is filled with more than 10,000 jellyfish of the Mastigius species. These jellyfish are also sometimes known as Darwin’s jellyfish. Since these jellyfish have become cut off from the ocean, they have adapted to life with very few predators. Over time, their nemastocysts or “stinging cells” have become smaller and smaller. They have been minimized to the point that these jellyfish are virtually harmless to humans. This is absolutely unheard of anywhere else on Earth.

Visitors to Jellyfish Lake not only get to have the otherworldly experience of swimming with jellyfish, but they get to witness an odd jellyfish migration of sorts. Each day, during the early morning hours, all of the jellyfish move toward the eastern side of the lake. At midmorning they all swim to the western side of the lake. This is done to optimize the amount of sunlight available to their main food source (algae). At night, they all move closer to the floor of the lake, where there is a significant build up of hydrogen sulfide (also beneficial to the algae).

Jellyfish Lake is a one-of-a-kind place and the Palau authorities are determined to keep it that way. Visitors are asked to be very careful not to litter. They are also asked to stick to snorkeling and swimming. SCUBA gear can affect the delicate balance of the lake. It is important that this lake and its counterparts be preserved for future generations.


Jellyfish Lake, retrieved 2/5/10, pbs.org/edens/palcw/p_sea_b_8.htm

Palau Jellyfish Lake, retrieved 2/5/10, jellyfishfacts.net/palau-jellyfish-lake.html