Caves are mysterious places even for those of us who have spent decades in exploring and trying to understand the agents of nature that formed them, and it should be noted that for a large percenta
By Mike Nardacci
A point I have always tried to make with my students or participants in one of my field trips is that geologists have a name for absolutely every natural process involving the rocky sphere that is Planet Earth. And one of the wonderful things that has happened in recent decades is that scientists have sent robot probes to examine the surfaces of other planets, as well as asteroids and comets, and have found not only that many of the same processes occur on worlds as alien as the Moon, Venus, and Mars, but have discovered exciting evidence of other geologic phenomena unknown on Earth and waiting to be explained.
Over the past few days, the Internet has been sizzling with reactions to a rock photographed by the Curiosity Rover that has a passing resemblance to a thighbone. Given the fact that not one of the robots sent there has yet found persuasive evidence that anything as large as a microbe ever lived on Mars, the curiously shaped rock is unlikely to be anything but that: a curiously shaped rock.
But the various chat rooms that dwell on such things are buzzing with charges that NASA (the National Aeronautics and Space Administration) is once again concealing evidence of macrobiotic life on Mars and those who disagree are denounced in vitriolic (and often hilariously ungrammatical) language.
Yet the fact is that the natural processes which change the shape of Earth’s surface are sometimes capable of producing very curious results: hence, the chess-piece shapes of the rocky towers of Bryce Canyon, the elegantly sculptured mesas and buttes of Monument Valley, and the granite profile of New Hampshire’s Old Man of the Mountains that collapsed ignominiously some years ago into a heap of rubble due to frost-wedging.
A few weeks back, on emerging from a trip with some students through one of the caves near the village of Clarksville, I noticed some odd, miniscule features on a pile of muddy debris at the cave’s entrance. The debris was glacial drift, deposited on the Clarksville area by one of the streams pouring off the melting Ice Age glaciers thousands of years ago: hundreds of penny-sized and smaller pebbles in a matrix of packed clay.
But many of the pebbles stood atop a small, thin column of that clay, forming tiny structures geologists call by the French term “damoiselles”— which loosely translates as “little maidens.” Evidently, to the French-speaking geologists who coined the name, the pebbles resembled broad bonnets perched atop the slender structures below.
This happens when rain water or melting snow cascades down an exposure of soft sediment, washing away anything that is not protected by the tiny pebbles; their weight has slightly compressed and hardened the materials on which they sit.
In many places in the world, these structures appear on a much larger scale. Chimney Bluffs State Park on Lake Ontario features enormous examples, which are often given the name “hoodoos” when they form such massive structures. A somewhat smaller display of hoodoos appears on the mysteriously named “Ghost Fire Bend” of the Normanskill, though these are currently not accessible by car with the closing of Grant Hill Road due to road work.
In June of this year, while on a hiking trip to New Mexico, I had the opportunity to visit Tent Rocks State Park on the reservation of the Cochiti Pueblo, southwest of Santa Fe. The preserve was originally given the Keresan language name Kasha-Katuwe, which is usually translated as “rocks that resemble teepees.”
Here, between 6 million and 7 million years ago, the land was buried under the debris from an incredibly violent volcanic eruption that formed the Jemez Caldera, a giant bowl-shaped depression to the north. Layers of the soft, spongy-looking rock known as pumice, compacted rock fragments called tuff, and volcanic ash buried the region in layers hundreds of feet thick.
The weight of all of that air-borne sediment compacted the strata into a crumbly matrix rock that weathers easily due to the wildly varying seasonal temperatures and is poorly resistant to erosion by the occasional rainfall or melting snow. But mixed in with the smaller rock fragments are boulders, some the size of an automobile, and these had the effect of compressing and compacting the sediments that lay beneath them. Thus the sediments were protected from the raging, highly erosive waters that flow during those occasional periods in arid climates when sudden torrential rains fall.
The results are the hoodoos of Kasha-Katuwe, and they are marvels to behold.
Those found near the parking area for the preserve’s trailheads gave Tent Rocks its name. There are a dozen or more of them, ranging in height from a couple of yards to 20 or 30 feet, but these represent the last stage in the erosion cycle of the hoodoos. They have lost their protective boulder caps and, in respect to geologic time, they are not long for this world.
Though this part of the Southwest is currently experiencing a severe decade-long drought, every drop of rain that does fall is washing them down to ground level, the eventual fate of all hoodoos.
To get a better idea of nature’s inventive sculpting talents, one must hike up one of the two major trails that head into the park. They are easy for the experienced hiker, though the lack of shade and the unforgiving summer sun make it mandatory to carry a couple of quarts of water. In addition, signs warn of poisonous snakes lurking in the underbrush — sufficient cause for those inclined to bushwhack to stay on trail.
A textbook example of the formation of the hoodoos lies on the edge of the eroding mesa around which the trail meanders. Rising some 20 feet from the middle of a dry wash, the structure is crowned by a large boulder of pumice.
Farther along the trail, the hoodoos become larger and more varied in shape and one particularly steep slope offers a view of their entire life cycle: some eroded down to mere stubs, some proudly displaying their protective caps, and others just beginning to emerge from the eroding cliffs.
They derive their weird shapes from the varying hardness of the rock strata from that they form. A slot canyon cut into the rock by raging waters offers a shady respite from the heat and climaxes in a hair-raisingly steep and exposed series of switchbacks leading to a jaw-dropping view out over the canyon to Sandia Mountain above Albuquerque.
The American Southwest — particularly in New Mexico and Arizona — features some spectacular geology due to its diverse rock types; its wildly varying elevations; and its climate, which tends to be arid but is subject to sudden intense flooding.
Terms such as “weathering,” “erosion,” “resistance,” “strata,” “frost wedging,” and other prosaic expressions may seem lifeless on the page of the textbook. But, in an environment such as Tent Rocks State Park, these dry words describe nature’s endlessly varied talent to create wonders in the rock from which Earth is made.
Acadia National Park on Maine’s “Down East Coast” is a place of mystical wonders: sheer granite cliffs rising from the sea, washed in the salt spray of enormous waves crashing against them; barren mountain peaks that seem much loftier than they really are, climbing upward from sea level and splashed with the colors of flowers normally found hundreds of miles farther north; spectacular stone bridges in the most unlikely places in the Acadian forests, gifted by John D. Rockefeller and looking like leftover sets from The Lord of the Rings films; and miles of fir and hemlock coastal forests, the dark green boughs hanging with the lichen called Old Man’s Beard, wreathed in fog and dripping in a silence broken only by the haunting cries of gulls and the clanging of buoys.
But Acadia is also an enormous outdoor natural history classroom, and educational institutions such as the College of the Atlantic in Bar Harbor frequently use its features for courses in geology, marine biology, botany, and environmental chemistry, among others.
The mountains of Acadia and other even higher summits in interior Maine must have been among the last places in the northeastern United States to have had glacial ice when the vast Wisconsinan glacier — the most recent continental glacier — retreated as Earth warmed over the last 15,000 years. U-shaped valleys, the odd asymmetrical mountains called “roches moutonnees” (which translates as something like “sleeping sheep”), bedrock showing the striations (scratches) caused by the advance of the glacier, and immense deposits of glacier-borne rock material all testify to the recent — in geologic time — Ice Age.
Glaciers are immensely powerful agents of erosion, and much of the upper part of the continental United States is covered in the debris they left behind.
The poet Robert Frost wrote frequently of the hardship of being a New England farmer — not the least of whose problems was the immense quantity of rock left behind in the landscape presenting an appalling challenge to the horse-drawn plough. His poem “Mending Wall” deals with the boulders — “some like loaves and some…nearly balls” that are ubiquitous in fields and which farmers for generations have used for stone walls and house foundations and churches.
The beaches of the Acadian Coast are famous for the almost infinite variety of types and colors of rocks found on them, many of which may have been transported for hundreds of miles from their point of origin: For it is a rule of glacial geology that an advancing glacier acts as a bulldozer, scraping away loose sediment and vegetation right down to the bedrock and then proceeding to abrade it, too, away; but a melting or evaporating glacier acts as a dump truck, leaving behind all sizes of rock particles from tiny clay and silt to huge cobbles and boulders in one heterogeneous mess called glacial drift.
The larger particles — the cobbles and boulders — are known by the quaint name glacial erratics. The high summits and slopes of Acadia are dotted with thousands of erratics, and on many of the peaks such as Cadillac Mountain, the highest mountain on the East Coast of the country, they sit in rugged isolation, often looking like the remnants of the mysterious rocky circles found in Ireland and England.
One of them is a famous landmark for visitors to Acadia: It is called Bubble Rock and it perches picturesquely on the steep slope of the summit of a small mountain known as South Bubble. It is an enormous chunk of the Lucerne Granite, a beautiful black-and-white speckled stone with large crystals that forms the bedrock some 40 miles north of Mount Desert Island
The sight of it challenges credibility: The slope appears to exceed the physicist’s “angle of repose” and it looks as if the slightest touch would send it careening noisily into the valley below it, smashing rocks and trees as it went.
Many visitors to Acadia National Park have appeared in the apparently obligatory photograph in which they attempt to dislodge it. Legend has it that, on a Halloween night some years ago, the entire football team of a local high school hiked up and attempted to push it off South Bubble. But there it stands.
A charming children’s book (now, alas, out of print) attributed the precarious position of the rock to Acadian trolls. But it must be remembered that on what is now the coast of Maine, the continental ice sheet was greater than a mile in thickness and thus had immense power to transport rocky materials: Retreating, it left this erratic and many others behind, sometimes in the most unlikely of locations.
Our own Helderberg hills and the Adirondacks also feature vast numbers of erratic cobbles and boulders, but, given the thickness of the forests that grow on them, erratics are often hard to spot, except when they are exceptionally large.
A relatively low mountain to the west of the Great Sacandaga Lake has a ridge running from its summit that features dozens of fairly large boulders of gneiss and anorthosite, transported from the High Peaks of the Adirondacks. Just below the mountain’s summit is a gigantic erratic, split down one side by frost wedging and the action of tree roots.
Far larger than Bubble Rock, it sits on a much gentler slope, and, located as it is in some fairly remote wilderness, it has likely had few visitors. Doubtless, hundreds more like it are scattered throughout the Adirondack fastness.
But we in the Albany area do not have to look far to find glacial erratics. Anyone who lives outside of the city of Albany — especially in the Altamont and Voorheesville area on the west side of the Hudson and in the Wynantskill and East Greenbush area on the east side — has found the same problem as the New England farmer in attempting to dig on one’s property: the enormous quantities of rocks in the soil.
They may have many different points of origin, of course, but one that is very common is a purplish rock often found as a smooth cobble or boulder, deposited directly by the ice or perhaps rounded and polished in a vigorous stream pouring off the melting glacier. These are samples of what is called the Potsdam sandstone and they originate far to our north near the border with Canada.
The fact that erratics’ points of origin can be determined with precision is useful to glacial geologists, who sometimes refer to deposits of such rocks as boulder trains. Appearing in more or less straight lines that strike roughly north-to-south, they allow the directional motion of the glacial ice to be determined very accurately.
When I am conducting geologic field trips, I usually toss out this question to participants: Just how long ago was the Ice Age?
Unless respondents are exceptionally knowledgeable, answers are usually accompanied by a shrug of the shoulders: “A million years ago?”
That is not a bad answer as a million years ago the ice was, indeed, in control of much of this part of the world.
But people are often unaware that even 10,000 years ago there was glacial ice on some of the highest peaks in the Northeast, and that we are living in what geologists call a glacial interlude.
But aren’t we in a time of global warming? Yes, there is evidence of that assertion. But all evidence is that the warmest Earth has been in the last 20,000 years occurred 7,000 years ago in a time geologists call the “hypsithermal,” and the glacial ice is poised for its return in a few thousand years.
In a few weeks, we will be entering the first stages of fall, and the average day-to-day temperatures will begin to drop. From time to time, we may see exceptionally warm days — we can all remember days in October and even November when the thermometer incongruously hit 80. But no one is foolish enough on such days to think that summer is coming back.
We are living in a geologic period of continental glaciers and the little purple stones in your backyard not only tell us that the last glacial advance was not so long ago; they may be harbingers of cold, cold days to come!
To anyone with an interest in the geology of the Helderberg Plateau, one of the pleasures of late March and early April is to take a drive around its back roads to see what the waters of the spring melt-off are doing.
When the snowpack of the plateau is subjected to the first temperatures in the 40s and 50s — especially when combined with a soaking spring rain — the cliffs and valleys gush with waters; their musical sounds signal that, though temperatures may yet perversely drop to unseasonably cold levels, the arrival of spring is irreversible.
And especially in regions with karst topography — where limestone bedrock has dissolved away to produce sinkholes and caves and springs — gullies that are normally dry may be flowing with temporary streams that vanish suddenly into gaping sinkholes, or spring unexpectedly from the ground, producing gurgling freshets that will be dry by early summer.
One chilly day about two weeks back, when the ground still had large patches of crusty snow and temperatures hovered near freezing, I took a drive along a gravel road not far from the hamlet of Knox to a monster sinkhole that lies much less than a stone’s throw from that road. It is large enough to show on topographic maps, and a geologic map of the rock layers (“stratigraphy”) of the area shows that, in its steep-walled, 50-foot depth, it punches through the surface Becraft limestone bedrock into the underlying New Scotland limestone.
Its picturesque rocky walls often drip with runoff and in warm months are green with mosses and ferns and wildflowers. At any time of year, it may take a stream and the waters have been dye-traced to a spring well over a mile away, indicating that somewhere beneath its muddy, rubble-strewn bottom there is a cave of considerable size.
Since I was a college student, I have been watching this sink, hoping that some fine day, following the spring floods, enough of the debris will have been washed through to admit explorers to the cave’s uncharted reaches: every cave explorer’s dream!
What I saw through the driver’s window even before I got out of my car unnerved me: I could see a couple of discarded tires littering one wall of the sink and, when I stepped out and could see the bottom, I spied several more.
But then I saw something far worse.
Directly in front of me, less than 20 feet down into the sink, were a number of rotted deer carcasses, perhaps half a dozen in all. The lowest ones were nothing but skeletons but those closest to the road still had hide.
Fifty feet or so to the right was another, and there appeared to be two more farther around below the rim of the sink, all of them perched on its steep walls, meaning that, when rain fell, it would pass through the carcasses and sink through the debris at the bottom, eventually finding its way to the cave system’s resurgence point.
I could just imagine what kind of crud and disease the carcasses might carry and all of it would be in the waters flowing from the unsuspecting owner’s spring.
The alluring sinkhole had become a dumping ground.
A week later, I returned with a camera and a friend, long-time caver Thom Engel, a retired Department of Environmental Conservation employee. This day was substantially warmer than the week before — now temperatures were in the low 60s, meaning that anything that had been frozen on my previous visit was likely to have thawed.
And no sooner had we stepped out of the car when we were hit with a slow breeze that carried the pungent, frightening stink of carrion. Besides the decayed corpses of the several deer and the rejected tires, there was other less-identifiable trash visible in the bottom of the sinkhole.
I quickly shot a couple of pictures and then we got back into the car and sped away from the vile-smelling vapors carried on the breeze. So much for the poet’s “gentle springtime zephyrs.”
It has long been illegal to dump waste into surface streams; what landowners today would pour used oil or dump the carcasses of dead domestic animals into a stream passing through their property? And, in any case, their downstream neighbors would be quick to see where their stream is picking up its filth.
Yet generations of people living on karst topography have seen sinkholes as tempting places in which to dispose of waste. A sinkhole, after all, may be very deep: a fire in the chicken coop kills a hundred hens, the work horse or ox goes to its reward, the much-worked-on pickup truck finally rolls over and dies — and the dead creatures or vehicles are dumped into a handy sinkhole, covered with a couple of tons of “clean fill” — and voila! The dead stuff is gone forever.
Sinkholes are not the “black holes” of modern astronomy and science-fiction, and a trip into them is not one-way. Soil — especially when it lies thickly over bedrock — can be a natural filter, and small amounts of pollutants can be trapped in subsoil as water infiltrates down to the water table.
But in landscapes with limestone bedrock exposed, surface streams frequently flow into sinkholes and then directly into karst aquifers — or “underground streams” to put it simply — and contaminants can enter the water table in a matter of moments.
There is no filtration of pollutants and extensive cave systems can carry them for miles, even under hills and ridges. Pity the landowner who discovers that the formerly pristine water source that springs from a mossy fracture in a cliff is suddenly redolent with the odor of anti-freeze or the stink of animal carcasses; and try to understand the bewilderment of a farmer perhaps miles away who cannot understand how the burned-out washing machine and the corpse of the cow that were buried in the convenient sinkhole that lies in a hedge row on his farm is polluting a spring that might be in the next township. After all — his ancestors have done that for generations, as other trash-laden sinkholes on the property bear witness.
But to understand is not to excuse.
I have deliberately been vague as to the whereabouts of the sinkhole that is the subject of this article and that has become a vile dumping ground. But what is going on there is illegal, and the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation has been informed of its exact location.
I am hopeful that those responsible for this disgusting flouting of the pollution laws — even if they are not apprehended — will at least read this, know that their crime is now public knowledge — and cease and desist.
Editor’s note: Bob Loden owns the land on Middle Road in the town Wright with this sinkhole and says it has been in the family since 1918. He is 65 now and, for as long as he can remember, people have dumped in the sinkhole.
He is well aware of the cave beneath it — as a young man, he explored Skull Cave, also on Middle Road — and says that, when a dye test was run on the Loden sinkhole, the dyed water flowed out of Bogardus Spring, near Route 433, which is “a couple of miles away as the crow flies.”
Loden went on, “Unfortunately, shall we call them local residents, feel that it’s a place they can throw all sorts of things...We have to get in there and clean all the crap out.” In the past, when the Lodens have found out who threw items in the sinkhole, they have had them clean it up.
“There are some people we feel are repeats and we’d love to catch them,” he said.
Loden said that there are quite a few sinkholes in the area — some larger than the one featured in the column — but its proximity to the road is what draws the waste.
On Wednesday, Loden said, the sinkhole was filled nearly to the brim with water. “A lot of times, things that float wash out,” he said.
— Melissa Hale-Spencer