Los Alamos, NM, United States
Los Alamos, NM, United States

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Lechuguilla Cave, a complex three-dimensional cave with a single known entrance, is located in remote desert terrain in Carlsbad Caverns National Park, in southeastern New Mexico, USA. The Guadalupe Mountains there contain uplifted limestone and dolomite rock in the Permian-age Capitan Reef complex. Hundreds of caves have been found in this region, but Lechuguilla Cave greatly exceeds the size of all others known. It was only a small pit mined for bat guano in the early twentieth century. In the 1970s the Cave Research Foundation performed digs at the bottom, where profuse air movement had been noted in the debris. This work ceased but another team of cavers visited in 1984, hearing and feeling the significant air, and began a digging project approved by the Park. The cavers dug into continuing passage in 1986. It was explored in three major branches, generally trending west/southwest to east/northeast, parallel to the reef face, with north-south connections along deep rift features. Depositional and corrosional events during sulfuric-acid speleogenesis created remarkable speleothems and speleogenesis, and the cave has often been called “the Jewel of the Underground”. The rapidly growing cave passed 80 km of surveyed length by 1990. Within the first ten years of exploration, 28 large-scale expeditions led to the cave reaching 113 km in length. From 1997 to 2013, 109 additional kilometers were mapped with smaller teams of up to 12 cavers per expedition. Exploration and mapping is now done in three to five expeditions per year, and recent work has focused on climbs and smaller leads such as tight crawls and fissures that were previously passed. Significant discoveries continue to be found using these techniques. The cave reaches a depth of 475 m and has been mapped to over 222 km in length. Exploration to the extreme ends is efficiently done with multi-day expeditions, using established camps in each branch. Cavers from the United States and dozens of other countries have been involved in this mapping project. The cave now has more than 35,000 survey stations, and the complexity of the maze of passages creates significant challenges for cartographers. Based on ever-present airflow and porosity of the bedrock, it is expected that this cave will continue to surprise and delight explorers and speleo-scientists in the future. © 2016, Instituto Geologico y Minero de Espana. All rights reserved.

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