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National Speleological Society

Speleology and Caving

Go to the IMAX film:   Journey into Amazing Caves

There are caves in all parts of the world. While most people think of them as just "holes in the ground", caves actually represent a very important geologic feature. They provide an environment that is protected from the more destructive forces of our planet's surface. As such, they give us a view back to historical events and to many years of geologic processes.

Caves are found in rock, lava, and ice strata around the world. They are formed in rock by the acidic dissolution of limestone, sandstone, marble, and granite (solution caves), or by the freeze/thawing action in mountains (talus caves). The hydraulics of volcanic lava flows form 'lava tubes' in the subsequently-cooled lava beds. The freezing/thawing cycles within glaciers and ice fields generate 'ice caves'. The wind-whipping action on sea waves form 'sea caves' in the base of cliffs along the perimeter of the world's oceans.

Speleology is the science of cave and karst studies. Karst is the cave-bearing landform found throughout the world. Scientists are drawn to cave research because of the closed nature of the ecosystem and the unique varieties of deposits to be found. Many different disciplines are included under the general umbrella of "speleology". A few are:

  • 'Geology/Geography' is the study of karst landforms and the cave distribution in them.
  • 'Speleogenesis' is the study of how caves are formed.
  • 'Cave Mineralology' studies the crystals and deposits that occur in caves.
  • 'Hydrology' studies the flow of water through the cave and surrounding rock strata.
  • 'Archeology' studies the human habitation of caves and karst areas.
  • 'Biology' studies the animals that have adapted to live in darkness.
  • 'Paleontology' studies the animal and fossil remains in caves.
Each of these research areas adds to our knowledge of the fragile planet Earth.

Caving is the term used for the general exploration of cave systems, including the location, exploration, mapping, and protection of caves and karst areas. The activities surrounding these efforts include:

  • 'Ridge Walking' to find cave locations, including questioning the residents of the area about their knowledge of entrances or springs.
  • 'Vertical Techniques' to enter pits and vertical passages using ropes and mountaineering methods.
  • 'Surveying and Cartography' to map the extent, direction, and underground elevations of the cave passages.
  • 'Cave Photograpy' to document the interior of the caves, as well as to provide artistic renditions of caves, cavers, and caving.
  • 'Cave Training' to impart safe techniques to cavers of all ages to minimize accidents and rescue incidents.
  • 'Cave Conservation' to promote low-impact techniques and to reduce needless vandalism in our spelean resources.
  • 'Safety and Rescue' to provide trained volunteers for assisting those unfortunate enough to be lost or injured in cave situations.

The archaic term 'Spelunking' is today generally relegated to describing sport caving ... the entry into caves just for the fun of it, for no other purpose than recreation. Many thousands of people spelunk regularly because it is fun and exciting. However, sport cavers also constitute the largest group of injured cavers, mainly due to incomplete knowledge of the hazards and lack of training or proper equipment. Unfortunately, this group is also responsible for most of the damage to caves and the delicate ecosystems in them, again generally due to a lack of knowledge.

The National Speleological Society is the organization that brings together cave scientists, project cavers, and sport cavers. Under one 'roof', each type of endeavor is fostered and cross-fertilized to bring out the best of each. There are currently 10,200 members in the NSS. There are about 200 local chapters, called 'grottos' throughout the U.S., Costa Rica, and the Ukraine. These grottos also form together into 'regions' to address topics relevant to each's geographic location.

The NSS is affiliated with the 'American Association for the Advancement of Science'. It is also a member of the Union Internationale de Spéléologié (International Union of Speleology). The UIS is the collective of caving societies throughout the world.

Web Links to Speleology and Caving

A helpful Training Aid: Knots For Cavers.


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