Carlsbad Caverns National Park: A Wonder Built by Nature

Name: Carlsbad Caverns National Park (United States of America).
Location: In the foothills of Guadalupe Mountains between Rio Grande and Pecos River in southeastern New Mexico.
Area: 45,191 acres.

Carlsbad's Interior Formations

The astonishing spectacle of watching thousands of bats escaping in the twilight for more than an hour in a cavern in the desert of Chihuahua, can't go unnoticed. Because of this, at the beginning of the 20th century people started to exploit tons of guano accumulated inside the caverns. It is believed that between 1903 and 1923, 100,000 tons of bat's guano were manually extracted from the entrance of the accessible caverns. This powerful fertilizer was sent to southern California, ending in the citrus plantations. It was one of these guano searchers, James Larkin White, who started to explore the excellent caves communicating the Bat Cave.

250 million years ago, the current Chihuahua desert was a sea where, close to the shore, was developed a reef. The current park covers a large part of this fossilized reef called Capitan, where throughout the centuries has been taking shape a wide network of caverns due to the dissolution of the rocks by sulphuric acid. From the 81 caves discovered up to this day, Carlsbad Cave, which has named the entire park, is the largest.

Bats from Mexico

The national park offers the visitor not only the splendorous spectacle of an entire unknown underground world, but it also offers the possibility of being able to watch from the magnificent beauty of the Chihuahua desert, the conifer forests that climb through the Guadalupe Mountains. 800 different species of plants, some of them seriously endangered, have been identified, including the Sneed, Lee and Lloyd cactuses.

From the faunistic point of view, it has been counted 64 mammals, 331 birds and 44 amphibians and reptiles in the protected zone. But the primary actors of the park are the different species of migratory bats that find refuge in the caves, particularly the Mexican free-tailed bat, with a population of around a million individuals. But if we compare these numbers with the 5 million bats that were counted in this same place in 1920, it can be observed that there has been a significant decline in the population of Mexican free-tailed bats, which is now a bit worrying. During their migration to Mexico is when the biggest losses take place, this is why researchers and ecologists are seeking to establish an international cooperation with the Mexican government.

An amphitheater located at the entrance of the Bat Cavern allows the observation in the twilight of numerous clouds of bats waking up and going out from their caves, while listening to the flapping of their wings while they search using their "radars" for something to eat from. It is calculated that every night the population of bats in Carlsbad eats around 3 tons of insects.

A Network of Karstic Caves

Although the formation of karstic caves networks is a natural phenomenon pretty common that can be found elsewhere in the world, until 1995 only two sites, in exclusive function of their karstic characteristics, had been added to the list of UNESCO World Heritage Sites: Mammoth Cave, in the United States of America, and Skocjan Caverns in Slovenia.

The Carlsbad Caverns are completely different to the ones mentioned before. Mammoth Cave stands out for the length of its caves, for its wide passages located at different levels and for its cut-out spaces into the shape of a bell. Skocjan site is famous for its vertiginous underground canyons and for being the illustration par excellence of the karstic hydrology. The Carlsbad Caverns, on the other hand, are identified by their wide rooms, much greater than the ones from Mammoth Cave or Skocjan, and by their mineral decorative structures, much more spectacular than the ones from the other places.

The reef complex of Capitan dates from the Permian age, indicating that it was formed between 280 and 225 million years ago. The discovered sections that are found in the park are considered to be one of the best preserved ones in the world. The geologists can therefore study the rocky formations not only in the corridors of the caverns which penetrate towards the interior of the reef, but also in the exterior, in the discovered eroded zones. A large number of fossils, especially echinoderms, sponges, trilobites and algae, are located in this limestone substrate.

Of all the caves in the park, only the Carlsbad Cave and the so-called New Section Cave can be visited. A 3-hour underground walk through the Carlsbad Cave, satisfies the most demanding ones. Descending through the main corridor where the decorative rocky formations, called speleothems, stand out by their grandiosity, one can access the denominated Scenic Rooms, among them we have to highlight the Green Lake Room with its impressive columns, the King's Palace, one of the most decorated caverns in the world, and the Queen's Chamber, with its weird-formed helictites.

But the most spectacular cave in the complex is the Big Room, through which the visitor can walk for more than an hour. Up to 14 football fields could fit in its interior. Inside it, it is located the Hall of Giants, with its two amazing twin domes, the Bottomless Pit, with a depth of 150 feet, and the Crystal Spring Dome, a place where the activity of the stalagmites is astonishing.

The Lechuguilla Cave

Discovered just a few years ago, the Lechuguilla Cave, which is not accessible to the public, continues to be completely untouched, presenting a series of exceptional natural features, to the point that it has been considered, from the scientific point of view, not only as the most important one in this reef complex, but also in the entire world. Its exploitation, starting at the end of the 20th century, has unveiled that it is one of the world's most "virgin", wide and decorative caves.

Inside this sumptuous cave can be studied the different geological processes on live, as several speleothems are just forming. One phenomenon that researchers have never seen in any other cave in the world, is the fact that the helictites are formed underwater. In the cave, visitors can also find other speleothems, many of them are unique or weird, for example, the world's largest and most diverse collection of biothems or decorating formations made up by bacteria.

The Lechuguilla Cave contains the largest and most extensive speleothems known by humans. A lot of them are more than 20 feet long and hang from the ceiling in the form of huge transparent crystals of selenite. In the Cave are also found the largest accumulation of hydromagnesite concretions and subaquatic helictites, made of aragonite and elemental sulphur, in the interior of a cavern. This grandeur natural spectacle is completed with other plaster and calcite formations.

An Underground Lab

Carlsbad Caverns National Park has become one of the main underground laboratories in the world, for the study of the karstic phenomena, especially after the discovery of the Lechuguilla Cave. But at the same time, it is one of those places where visitors can enjoy the incredible performance that is being offered to their eyes, in the bowels of the Earth. With a controlled tourism through the different paths, perfectly well studied and with the collectors of guano and speleothems practically gone, the only potential danger threatening this natural wonder are the natural gas and oil explorations that take place in the periphery of this national park. It is evident that these excellent caves, included in the UNESCO World Heritage Sites List, will continue to amaze its visitors and they will keep offering scientists new lights about the history of the Earth and its geological processes.

Source: National Geographic

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