Caves & Karst Education

Caves & Karst Education

Knowledge to help protect and preserve fragile caves and karst ecosystems

Caves are formed primarily in the geologic formation called karst, a term derived from the Slavic word krs or kras. The Kras Province is a small region in the Dinaric and Julian Alps in Slovenia.

Karst is made up of four primary features:

Sinkholes - A rounded depression in the landscape formed by water slowly dissolving the rock below or, in some cases, when an underground cavity collapses.

Losing streams – A surface stream that loses a significant amount of its flow to the subsurface through bedrock openings.

Springs – A cave filled with water, which is discharged to the surface.

Caves – A cavity formed beneath the earth’s surface, when water dissolves the limestone or dolomite by chemical action.

In the 1890’s, researcher E.A. Martel said “No theory about the origin of caves is universal,” meaning there is no single explanation that can account for all the caves in the world.

In Missouri, factors that contribute to cave formation are topography, fractures and cracks in the rock that water can pass through and the movement of water from upland to lowland areas.

Water moving through bedrock enters the underground cavity, losing carbon dioxide to the cave’s atmosphere. The chemistry of the water changes the minerals dissolved from the overlying limestone and dolomite and cave deposits known as speleothems begin growing on the cave’s walls, ceilings and floor.

Today, caves represent one of the last frontiers of exploration in Missouri and the world.

Caves - Man's Use, Abuse and Vandalism

For roughly 10,000 years, native Americans across the U.S used caves as:

  • Shelters
  • Ceremonial events
  • Burial grounds
  • Sources of water, clay and other minerals

In the 16th century Spanish explorer, Hernando De Soto, found saltpeter in caves near Farmington and Branson, Missouri. Saltpeter, an essential ingredient used to make black powder. By the 1720s, saltpeter was being mined in a cave now known as Meramec Caverns and was the start of an industry that lasted until 1860s.

Industries that thrived in Missouri caves were mushroom growing and lagering "cold storage" of beer. In the early 1840s, an influx of German immigrants in St. Louis County and the abundance of caves in the area made possible the production of lager beer at competitive rates. Breweries, speakeasies, ballrooms and taverns prospered in the caves of St. Louis County.

Cave Loss and Damage

Caves are in trouble, at least in St. Louis County, Missouri, says Robert Criss, Ph.D., professor of earth and planetary sciences in Arts & Sciences at Washington University in St. Louis. Criss co-authored, Caves of St. Louis County: A Tale of Loss, a scholarly paper that appears as the sole entry of the journal Missouri Speleology (Vol. 45, No. 1, 2007) and describes some of St. Louis County's 127 known caves and warns that urban development in the past 200 years has eliminated or destroyed many caves in St Louis County and The Cave State.

Throughout Missouri, caves and karst have served many uses and have also suffered an onslaught of abuse and vandalism. Speleothems have been broken in many caves, flowstone was covered with gravel, trash was dumped in sinkholes and caves, and both ground water and streams that flow through caves were polluted.

St. Louis Buried Treasures

A March 31, 2014, post on STL Tourguide blog, tells the story, "Chief among these (buried treasures) from a public perspective are the limestone caves over which St. Louis evolved from ancient times; some of which continue to be used for railway tunnels and offices in downtown St. Louis." Read more>>

More About Karst and Karst Groundwater in Missouri

For a guide beneath the surface and how karst was formed in Missouri, read Below Missouri Karst, an article by Bill Elliott, cave biologist with the Missouri Department of Conservation.

View Karst in the Ozarks, an educational video about caves, springs, losing streams and sinkholes in Missouri. The video offers both high speed and dial-up viewing options.

Karst Groundwater

Tom Aley, author of a May 2010 article about karst's unique water recharge system reminds us, "Karst groundwater is an incredible natural resource. It provides drinking water for many of our residents, beautiful springs to feed our waterways and habitat for many unusual underground species. The quality of the groundwater is dependent upon how we use the land and how well we protect the quality of groundwater recharge. An old adage is that whatever goes up comes down. In karst areas, whatever goes down, comes up —up through a cave, a spring or a well." Read article.