June 1, 2005

Large Calcite Formation Found in New Mexico Cave

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. -- A calcite formation named Snowy River could prove a gold mine for scientists.

Snowy River, believed to be the largest continuous calcite formation in the world, was discovered in September 2001 by a Bureau of Land Management team led by veteran speleologist John McLean of Colorado.

The stark white passage, looking like a river of snow surrounded by walls of brown clay and black manganese dioxide deposits, stretches more than two miles from Fort Stanton Cave in sourthern New Mexico.

It's not a Carlsbad Caverns-type cave. Fort Stanton has few secondary formations such as stalactites; the one outstanding formation is Snowy River, expedition leader John Cocoran said Tuesday, the day the formation's discovery was formally announced.

Water originally carved a channel in the clay and gravel, then eventually filled it with brilliant white calcite.

It's not easy to explore. So as not to contaminate the formation, scientists who go into the passage change shoes - and in some cases, clothes - when moving from the clay edges to the Snowy River formation, Cocoran said. The round trip to the south end requires 16 changes of shoes, he said.

Scientists believe the new passage could yield information on everything from specialized bacteria to underground drainage, Cocoran said.

The original discovery drew a few local news reports, but scientists wanted to keep the passage's existence quiet until an environmental assessment could be done and arrangements could be made to protect it.

The emphasis for the future will be for scientific research and conservation - not recreation, Cocoran said.

"It's a really unique formation," he said. "Nothing of this size or quality is seen in any other caves."

Researchers would like to know how the passage formed and how old it is. Initial study indicates the last time calcite was deposited was about 150 years ago, but the formation could be much older, Cocoran said.

Penny Boston, director of the cave and karst studies program at New Mexico Tech in Socorro, has been studying the microbiology of the passage. She has found several types of bacteria that live in a lightless environment and are unknown anywhere else.

"The chemical byproducts of these bacteria may have pharmaceutical applications and there are other things biologists and biochemists can learn," Cocoran said.

Fort Stanton Cave itself, which was designated a National Natural Landmark in 1975, is open by permit only. It is not improved, and going into it requires hard hats and boots.