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Discovery Magazine 5/1/2001

Icicles Made of Stone

Jimmy never had been in a cave before, but his parents had promised that they could visit the Lost Sea on their next trip to Grandma’s house. The Lost Sea is a huge underground body of water that is located deep in a cave in Tennessee.

As the car drove down the interstate, Jimmy wondered what strange things he would see in the cave. Finally, the car pulled into the parking lot. Jimmy and his parents contacted a tour guide to lead them through the cave. They all walked down an inclined ramp that had been cut out of the rocks. When they finally stopped at the bottom, the ground leveled out and they walked into the cave. Jimmy didn’t see any bats, but the air was cool, and he was glad to have his jacket.

After a few minutes in the dimly lit cave, Jimmy’s eyes adjusted to the darkness and he could see strange things hanging from the ceiling. Similar things looked like they were growing from the floor of the cave as well. They looked like huge icicles, but they appeared to be made out of rock. Some of them were huge, even taller than Jimmy—almost five feet long. "What are those things," Jimmy asked his dad? "The ones hanging from the ceiling are called stalactites, and the ones attached to the floor are stalagmites," replied Jimmy’s dad.

"How did they form?" asked Jimmy. His dad explained that water above the caves seeps through the ground. As it does, a mineral called calcium carbonate gets mixed in with the water. Eventually, the mineral-filled water seeps through the sides or ceiling of a cavern. This water forms little drops that evaporate, leaving behind the calcium carbonate. Sometimes, the water droplets fall to the floor of the cave and still have some minerals left in them. When this happens, a stalagmite often "builds up" from the floor. Many of the stalactites and stalagmites grow directly above and below each other. Sometimes, they connect and form a pillar that reaches from the ceiling to the floor.

"That must take a long time," said Jimmy as he thought out loud. "Many people used to think so," replied his dad. "But scientists have discovered that it does not take that long. In fact, some stalactites have grown as big as five feet in only forty-five years. They grow especially quickly in tropical areas where it rains a lot and the rainwater seeps through the ground. Stalactites and stalagmites that once were thought to have taken more than 10,000 years to grow could have grown in just a few hundred."

As Jimmy and his parents thanked the tour guide and left, he could not take his mind off the "icicle rocks." His last thought before they pulled into Grandma’s driveway was: "Isn’t it amazing how God can turn a dirty, dark cave into a beautiful work of art?"



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