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Imagine a cave filled with giant crystals, some as tall as telephone poles but 100 times as heavy.
Something that only Mother Nature is capable of creating, the giant crystal cave is located in the Naica Mine some 300m below the surface in Naica, Chihuahua, Mexicow and was discovered by accident by 2 miners in 2000.
Despite the crystals’ icy presence, temperatures in the cave soars up to 45 Degrees Celsius and the humidity can go as high as 100%. That is like combining the heat of the Sahara desert with the humidity of the Amazon rainforest – all of which are contained it in a football sized cave that is two stories high.
These factors mix to create on the most inhospitable places on Earth, especially for humans.
When our body temperature rises, our body cools down through perspiration. However, due to the humidity of the cave, sweat will not evaporate, thus trapping the body heat which will slowly climb, killing cells and shutting down organs as time goes on. Hot air in the cave also makes it incredibly difficult to breathe.
An average man will notice his body begin to shut down from overheating after the 5 minute mark. From that point, one will notice body trembles, breathing difficulty, loss of consciousness, and ultimately death by the 30 minute mark.
Scientists have developed special suits and respirators that allows them to stay in the cave for 45 minutes while protecting them from the razer sharp crystals. Their goal – to unlock the secrets of the cave and understand them.
13 years on, we have learnt many of its secrets, though there is still so much more unanswered questions that is guarded by the hostile, jagged terrain.
What we know so far is that the crystals were fully submerged water rich in gypsum (selenite) and in excess of 50 Degree Celsius – undisturbed for at least half a million years.
This created the perfect environment for gypsum to form into the giant crystals we witness today as gypsum crystals grow very slowly – estimated to be about 1.5mm per 1000 years – all while having constant conditions of water and heat.
It was only due to the mining activities at the Naica Mine, which included pumping out the water out of the cavern for mining to be possible, was it possible for this hidden wonder of Nature to be discovered.
The Giant Crystal Cave is only 1 of 5 known caves within a network of caves that we have yet to fully grasp and understand. The first, known as the Cave of Swords, was discovered back in 1910, many years after the mine was first discovered by early prospectors in 1794.
Between 1910 and the discovery of the Giant Crystal Cave in 2000, we had progressed greatly in the field of science and exploration – We even set footprints on the Moon in this period.
It should then come to no surprise that scientists from various respects, including those in search for life on other worlds, would be interested in this extreme environment. The fact that the Giant Crystal Cave is home to Gypsum crystals that were 5 times bigger than previously discovered crystals also garnered incredible interests.
Such interests led to expeditions, which in turn led to the discovery of 3 more of such caves, each slightly different from the other.
Giant Crystal Cave
The most well known of the 5 caves, it is famous for its pillars of gypsum crystals which are some of the world’s largest crystals.
Cave of Swords
The Cave of Swords earned its name from the protruding dagger-like crystals. As the cave is only 120 metres below the surface compared to 300 metres for the Giant Crystal cave, it was not full submerged in the gymsum-rich water that contributed to the amazing growth of the Giant Crystal cave.
Cave of Sails
Unlike the other caves, the cave of sails is unique because despite not being submerged in water, crystals in this cave have been witnessed to grow!
This cave is known for a large gem located at the center of the cave, hence its name.
The latest cave to be discovered, it is one that is not connected with the other 4 caves, which share a series of network and tunnels. It house unique cauliflower-shaped crystals as well as crystals that looked like optic fiber or tangled cables.
Many technology and method meant for searching for life on other planets (namely Mars) were used during the expeditions – what better way to test them then in one of the most inhospitable and unique environment that we know.
Scientists have found that bacteria and viruses thriving in a puddle of water in one of the caves. A 1 millilitre sample revealed more than 10 million viruses, much more than anyone anticipated. These were later determined to be the same as those living near hydro-thermal vents found at the bottom of the sea.
Scientists also found ancient bacteria that lay frozen in time within fluid inclusions – tiny air pockets that formed within the crystals as they were growing. These were reanimated and brought back to life.
What they found were unlike anything else that they had seen on Earth, surviving on the consumption of bedrock and inorganic mineral compounds. Such knowledge sheds light as to how life can exists on other planets.
While there are still so much more we have yet to learn about the Crystal caves, the possibility of future expeditions are uncertain.
This is because the crystal caves were only found because of the pumps working around the clock to redirect the water, allowing the caves to be unlocked for human exploration. If the pump stops, the caves will once again be submerged.
And this is actually a good thing. Since its discovery, the average temperature within the Crystal Cave had been dropping, albeit at a minute rate. Because of this, the crystals had stopped growing.
While this will ultimately seal away one of the most beautiful and inhospitable creations of Mother Nature yet discovered by humans, it will also allow the caves to return to its original state, one that will allow the crystals to grow even larger.
It may be unlocked and rediscovered in another time. But until then, I shall end this point with a humbling quote which concluded “Into The Lost Crystal Caves“, a fantastic documentary which documented the last expedition.
Sometimes, the best things on Earth, are the things we leave alone.