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Rudi Kiefer: Don’t let cave scare deter you from exploring nature’s hidden wonders
Rudi Kiefer
One can only hope that the near-catastrophe and dramatic rescue of 12 boys from Thailand’s Tham Luang cave doesn’t deter U.S. tourists from visiting safe locations that have been opened to the public. There are plenty of “tourist caves” near Georgia that are well worth a visit, and there’s no risk of getting trapped in one due to sudden flooding.

The best known is probably Luray Caverns in Virginia. For a somewhat steep ticket price (currently $28 per adult), the cave offers an opportunity to see an awesome set of features. Other caves in that region of Virginia offer similar views , for example Dixie Caverns, Shenandoah Caverns and Skyline Caverns. There are no tight crawls to negotiate, no swim-through passages, and no 50-foot pitfalls to avoid.

Hardcore cave enthusiasts decry the decline of natural conditions inside the tourist caves. But it can be argued that they provide a learning opportunity for people who wouldn’t otherwise ever get to see the underground world from inside.

Cave features are created by the action of running water. Stalactites, pointy objects hanging from the ceiling, form when water has been flowing through cracks in the limestone bedrock, dissolved lots of calcium on its way and then enters the cave air. It’s carrying carbon dioxide from plant roots, which made it acidic. In the cave air, it can’t hold all that CO2 and loses its aggressiveness, similar to a soda pop going stale on the window sill.

A calcium crust forms where water drips from the ceiling, and slowly grows into one of the deposits known as speleothems. Where it splashes on the floor, a stalagmite can grow upward in the same fashion.

On the walls, calcium crystallizes into flowstone, another speleothem that looks like a pastry maker’s mad creation. Where water has been flowing rapidly, the cave can take the shape of a tube, and ledges on the wall bear witness to ancient water levels.

In some caves, the tour guide will briefly extinguish the lights to demonstrate the awesome effect of real, total darkness. Bats inhabit many locations. They aren’t vampires from horror movies. Most of the time, you’ll see them as little fluff balls sleeping upside down on the ceiling.

It doesn’t take special equipment or skills to visit U.S. tourist caves. Just join a group tour for an exciting educational experience.

Rudi Kiefer, Ph.D., is a professor at Brenau University, teaching physical and health sciences on Brenau’s Georgia campuses and in China. His column appears Sundays and at gainesvilletimes.com.

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