Tag Archives: caves

Why I went to Belize

There are many reasons cavers decide to go to faraway places across the globe during their vacations. Some do it because they want to get out of the office. Some go because they like to see exotic sights and strange places well off the beaten path. Some go, like me, because they want the chance to see something new and unexplored. And we all do it because it is fun!

One doesn’t have to go to Belize to get these benefits. I could have traveled to England, Mexico, Hawaii, or any one of several dozen other countries to see the exotic, the new, and the unexplored. In fact, I have already done so in Russia, Ukraine, Germany, and Czechia (the new official name of the Czech Republic). Belize however was relatively close, the local population spoke English, I had never been there before, and most important, someone else was organizing things! When David and Eleanor Larson invited me to join their Belize project I decided this was a great opportunity to visit a strange and new place with a minimum of aggravation or planning. They had already done it, and I merely had to sign up and agree to do whatever their project needed doing. So, off I went.

Upon arrival, I soon discovered several very important additional reasons why this cave project exists. First there are the caves. They are grand and beautiful things, with very vast chambers filled with delicate and rare formations. The picture below, taken by fellow caver Laura Sangiala, shows one wall of the gigantic entrance room of one cave.
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New human species found?

The uncertainty of science: Scientists in South Africa think they have found fossils of a new human species.

In the end, the work of more than 60 researchers yielded a picture of “a relatively tall, skinny hominid with long legs, humanlike feet, with a core and shoulder that is primitive,” Berger says. Some body parts have come into sharper focus than others. In an analysis of the remarkably complete hands, paleoanthropologist Tracy Kivell of the University of Kent in the United Kingdom found that bones in the wrist were shaped like those in modern humans, suggesting that the palm at the base of the thumb was quite stiff. That would allow forces to dissipate over a larger area of the hand than in more primitive humans—a trait associated with tool use. At the same time, H. naledi had a weird thumb and long, curving fingers, as if it still spent a lot of time climbing.

The story of the discovery is interesting in that the fossils were found in a cave in a room that is very difficult to access, so difficult that the scientists themselves have never seen the site. Instead, they have sent very small cavers inside to do the fossil gathering.

There are many caveats to this story. The 15 skeletons appear different than humans, but to then create a whole human species from this single location is a bit risky.

I think the biggest mystery about this find involves its location. How the heck did these 15 individuals get trapped in this room at the back of a cave that requires you to squeeze down a vertical 100-foot chute only about 8 inches wide to enter?

Counting bats on a Saturday evening

While most normal people spend their Saturday evenings going out to dinner followed by either a movie or a show, I spent this past Saturday doing something entirely different: counting bats!

There is a local cave here in the Tucson area that is a maternity colony for one species of bats. During the summer the females gather here to gossip and then give birth to their babies, after which they move on until next year. Because of a desire to help these bats, a few years ago the managers of the cave decided to close it during the summer months. This way humans wouldn’t be there to disturb the mothers during their labor.

The managers also decided to do regular bat counts of the bats leaving the cave each evening to feed, in order to get an estimate of the population size. To everyone’s delight they found the numbers rising year-to-year, following the summer closure. The total population of bats isn’t actually going up, but it appears that bats are finding this cave to be a good place to give birth, so more and more of them are making it their summer residence.

In the end the situation will contribute to an actual rise in population, as providing the maternity colony a safe haven will allow for more successful births and more babies.

In the past three years the bat count numbers over each summer would exhibit a typical bell curve, going up and then declining as the summer progressed, with the largest numbers ranging between 75 to 150 each night. However, last year there was one evening in which no bats left the cave. The bat biologist leading the bat count, Sandy Wolf, has theorized that this might be because the mothers are synchronizing their labor so that everyone gives birth at the same time and, because of that, on that night no one exits for feeding.. She knows that some species do this, but for this particular species such behavior has never been documented.

Anyway, she decided to find out. This has required that someone be at the entrance counting the bats at least every other evening. (In past years the counts were only done about once a week.) This has required more help, and thus Sandy has called for volunteers to do the work.

And that is how I and fellow caver Jerry Isaman ended up hiking up the hill to the cave with digital camera, infrared lights, and monitor this past Saturday.

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Finding caves on Mars

A new study of pits on Mars has isolated one particular type of pit that has all the features of an Earth-like cave entrance, with a large number located in the regions around the giant volcanoes where evidence of past glacier activity has been found. From the abstract:

These Atypical Pit Craters (APCs) generally have sharp and distinct rims, vertical or overhanging walls that extend down to their floors, surface diameters of ~50–350 m, and high depth to diameter (d/D) ratios that are usually greater than 0.3 (which is an upper range value for impacts and bowl-shaped pit craters) and can exceed values of 1.8. Observations by the Mars Odyssey Thermal Emission Imaging System (THEMIS) show that APC floor temperatures are warmer at night and fluctuate with much lower diurnal amplitudes than nearby surfaces or adjacent bowl-shaped pit craters.

In other words, these pits are deeper with steeper and overhanging walls that suggest underlying passages. They also maintain warmer temperatures at night with their day/night temperatures changing far less than the surface, similar to caves on Earth where the cave temperature remains the same year-round.

The study’s most important finding, from my perspective, was the location of these pit craters.
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Giant lava tubes possible on the Moon

New analysis of the lunar geology combined with gravity data from GRAIL now suggests that the Moon could harbor lava tubes several miles wide.

David Blair, a graduate student in Purdue’s Department of Earth, Atmospheric and Planetary Sciences, led the study that examined whether empty lava tubes more than 1 kilometer wide could remain structurally stable on the moon. “We found that if lunar lava tubes existed with a strong arched shape like those on Earth, they would be stable at sizes up to 5,000 meters, or several miles wide, on the moon,” Blair said. “This wouldn’t be possible on Earth, but gravity is much lower on the moon and lunar rock doesn’t have to withstand the same weathering and erosion. In theory, huge lava tubes – big enough to easily house a city – could be structurally sound on the moon.”

You can read their paper here. If this is so, then the possibility of huge colonies on the Moon increases significantly, as it will be much easier to build these colonies inside these giant lava tubes.

New images from Mangalyaan

Arsia Mons

Indian scientists have released a new set of color images taken by their Mars orbiter, Mangalyaan.

The image on the right is of Arsia Mons, one of the three giant volcanoes to the east of Mars’ biggest volcano, Olympus Mons. Arsia Mons is important for future manned colonization, as there are known caves on its western flanks. In addition, those western flanks show solid evidence of past glaciers, which means that it is very likely that those caves will harbor significant quantities of water-ice, making settlement much easier.

Caves on the Moon!

Scientists have now identified more than 200 cave pits on the Moon.

The pits range in size from about 5 meters (~5 yards) across to more than 900 meters (~984 yards) in diameter, and three of them were first identified using images from the Japanese Kaguya spacecraft. Hundreds more were found using a new computer algorithm that automatically scanned thousands of high-resolution images of the lunar surface from LRO’s Narrow Angle Camera (NAC).

This work is essentially the same as that done by James Fincannon and I back in 2011 (see links here, here, here, and here) but with much greater thoroughness.

Cave exploration in the western mountains

scree slope
Anthony Smith struggling up a scree mountain slope.

I have only visited Nevada twice before, and those visits had been limited to the area around Las Vegas. Thus, my impression of the state had been similar to what most other people assume: a big ostentatious urban city surrounded by boring flat deserts.

Instead what I found is that Nevada is probably one of the most beautiful states in the nation. It has many mountain ranges, interspersed with wide flat valleys, a number of which have lakes or swampy areas because the water is trapped there, draining neither to the Pacific or Atlantic.

Yet, it is desert country. The limited amount of water means that the state is lightly populated, and the few farms or ranches that you pass actually act to amplify the feeling of emptiness. This is further enhanced by the frequent mountain ranges. Every time you cross over a range, you find yourself high in the air with a spectacular view of the vast valleys below.

The Forest Service job that I was part of this past week was focused on inventorying and surveying a number of known caves covering a large area in northeastern Nevada. The work had actually started several years earlier, so that this particular week was the final wrap up, mapping the last few known caves on the list while also ridge-walking several different canyons in an effort to find some new discoveries.
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Off to Nevada


For the next seven days my daytime posting is going to be spotty, as I will be in some remote areas of Nevada working on an on-going Forest Service project to inventory and survey caves in an area in the northeastern area of the state. The project is mostly over, but as I have surveyed, sketched, and done the cartography for many eastern U.S. caves, the guy running the project asked if I would be interested in participating. Interested? I was thrilled.

Though we will be in a somewhat remote area, I still hope to post periodically during the week, not only about the usual topics but also about some of the caves we will have surveyed, some of which are rarely visited. I will also try to post some pictures of the spectacular country we expect to visit. (The photo on the right was provided to me by Tom Gilleland, who is running the project.) Stay tuned.

A 33,000-year-old dog skull found in a Siberian cave, when compared with other ancient dog remains found in a Belgium cave, suggest to scientists that the domestication of dogs took place separately in many different places.

A 33,000-year-old dog skull found in a Siberian cave, when compared with other ancient dog remains found in a Belgium cave, suggest to scientists that the domestication of dogs took place separately in many different places.

For as yet unexplained reasons, scientists have been finding isolated colonies of little brown bats — once the most common bat species in the region and the hardest hit by white nose syndrome — surviving and healthy.

Hope for North America’s bats: For as yet unexplained reasons, scientists have been finding isolated colonies of little brown bats — once the most common bat species in the region and the hardest hit by white nose syndrome — surviving and healthy.

In Vermont, biologists have identified 15 colonies in the western part of the state where the numbers of little brown bats, while still far fewer than before white nose appeared, are surviving, said Vermont Fish and Wildlife Biologist Scott Darling. “We visited each and every one of those colonies and to some degree, much to our surprise, they seem to be healthy,” Darling said. “It begged the question, ‘Why are you the lucky ones?'”

U.S. Forest Service closes more caves

An excellent editorial on the U.S. Forest Service’s decision to shutter more caves. Key quote:

The closures . . . seem like an overreaching government solution to a problem that doesn’t exist. The Forest Service could certainly be spending its time in more constructive ways – like taking public comment on the “emergency” closures, which are set to start May 1.

Caving in Druid Cave, Cheat Canyon, West Virginia

An evening pause: Caving in Druid Cave, Cheat Canyon, West Virginia. The caver is David Riggs. The videographer is caver Aaron Bird. The caver who arrives at the end with the ATV is caver Brian Masney. All are world class cavers, with whom I’ve had the honor of caving.

The video is nicely done, and gives an excellent and accurate feel for modern cave exploration and techniques. Watch especially how the rigging allows David to climb past the waterfall while on rope and hardly get wet.

Exploring the floor of Copernicus

thumbnail of index of caves on floor of Copernicus

The Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter website recently announced a new way to tour the Moon. The website, called QuickMap, allows a user with any home computer to zoom into any spot on the lunar surface and see the high resolution images being taken by Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter.

Using QuickMap, I spent a few hours this past weekend strolling about on the northern half of the floor of the crater Copernicus. It is in this area, annotated in the image on the right, that NASA engineer James Fincannon has already located a slew of collapse features and possible caves, the images of which I have posted previously on behindtheblack. (Click on the image or here to see a larger version of this updated index map.)

(You also can go sightseeing there if you wish. Go to QuickMap and zoom in on 10.1 latitude and -20.1 longitude to get to the floor of Copernicus. Or pick your own spot on the lunar surface and do some of your own exploring!)

What I found in the northern half of Copernicus’s floor was a plethora of possible caves and collapse features. Literally, the crater floor is littered with what appear to be pits, fissures, rills, and sinks. More significantly, sometimes the cave entrances line up with long straight collapse features, suggesting strongly the existence of extensive underground passages beyond the initial entrance pits.
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