July 24, 2008

Cave Explorers Chart Unique “˜Snowy River’ In New Mexico

At Fort Stanton Cave in New Mexico, hundreds of feet below the Earth's surface, an odd formation made up of an intricate crust of tiny calcite crystals continues to intrigue cave specialists and explorers.

The formation is known as "Snowy River", due to its long, flowing presence on the cave's floor. It is thought to be the longest continuous cave formation in the world "” at least 4 miles long "” and explorers have yet to find its end.

"I think Snowy River is one of the primo places underground in the world and there's still so much left that we haven't discovered. ... We don't even know how big it is," said Jim Goodbar, a cave specialist with the federal Bureau of Land Management.

In early July, members of the Fort Stanton Cave Study Project added several thousand feet to the measurement of the spectacular formation. The explorers who have been following the passage under the rolling hills of southeastern New Mexico say there's still more of Snowy River to be discovered.

Those who have walked on the formation say they've seen nothing else like it. Early studies point to its uniqueness: Already, some three dozen species of microbes previously unknown to science have been uncovered.

New Mexico's two U.S. senators are pushing for Congress to designate Fort Stanton Cave and Snowy River as a national conservation area. The designation would protect the area from such activities as mining that threaten the water flows that created the cave. It also might generate funding for scientific research.

"It's certainly a national treasure and very well worth protecting in its own right, even without Snowy River. With Snowy River, it puts it in the class of world-class caves," said John McLean, a retired hydrologist and member of the cave study group.

Penny Boston, a New Mexico Tech professor and associate director of the National Cave and Karst Research Institute, said it's a "beautiful anomaly."

Extreme environments such as Snowy River provide scientists an opportunity to explore life on the fringes.

"The idea is that we're practicing to go to Mars, we're practicing to go to Europa (a moon of Jupiter) and all of these other places," she said. "It's very difficult to even prove some of the things we've studied here on this planet are alive. Imagine how much harder that is when you translate that to a robotic mission millions of miles from Earth."

The researcher has collected microorganisms that she believes are responsible for the manganese crust that covers much of the walls in the Snowy River passage. Once thought to be ancient and inactive, the microbes are busy in her lab, breaking down materials and producing mineral compounds.

Scientists plan to take core samples of Snowy River to look for microbes that have been entombed in the calcite layer and for fossil evidence of past microscopic life.

The cave could help scientists learn more about the region's geology and how water makes its way through the arid environment.

Explorers arrived at Snowy River last summer to find it flowing with water. It had been dry when first discovered in 2001 and during trips in 2003 and 2005.

After a few months, Snow River dried out but left scientists with another set of questions about where the water came from and where it went. Some scientists believe innumerable floods formed Snowy River, dropping a thin layer of calcite each time.

Snowy River is currently off limits to visitors of Fort Stanton.

Locked up behind metal gates, it is unlikely Snowy River will ever be open to anything but research because of the fragility of the tiny calcite crystals and microbes on the cave walls.


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