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Caving party within giant aragonite / gypsum candelabrae in Lechuguilla cave

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USA : New Mexico : Giant aragonite and gypsum candelabra in the Lechuguilla cave system

Coordinates : about 32°10'N , 104°29'W : Lechuguilla cave, Carlsbad, Eddy Co., New Mexico, USA


Lechuguilla cave was discovered in 1986, when cavers dug open a hole in a long known depression near Carlsbad Cavern in New Mexico, which was long ago mined for salpeter. Little did they know, that they opened one of the most beautiful caves in the world.

Since then not less than 150 km of winding cave passages has been explored, bringing Lechuguilla into the league of the longest caves in the world. Previously unseen - except maybe in the Kap-Kutan cave system - cave formations of marvellous beauty and majestic dimensions were discovered.

Lechuguilla is - together with Kap-Kutan and a few much smaller caves - a member of the rare class of caves leached by sulphuric acid solutions. Limestone, the major host rock for cave formation, is normally slowly dissolved by slightly carbonated water and hence cave formation is mostly a slow process. In Lechuguilla the water was much more acidid due to hydrogen sulfide, which originates from nearby oil bearing sediments. Water and hydrogen sulfide form sulphuric acid and so Lechuguilla was sort of leached out of solid rock by diluted acid. This process is much faster than ordinary cave formation and results in the deposition of large quantities of gypsum in the cave.

In Lechuguilla we find large candelabra like formations composed out of myriads of crystals of gypsum and aragonite, which may reach a dimension of several meters. Though they are composed of generally small crystals, the shear size of the individual crystal aggregates is impressive enough.

Other notable & famous aragonite occurences :

- The aragonite chandeliers in the Kap-Kutan Cave System, Turkmenistan; very similiar to Lechuguilla.

- Large, coralliform aggregates - so called "Eisenblüte" (iron flower) is known from various localities, most famous being the occurences at the Erzberg in Styria, Austria.

- Yellow transparent crystals up to 20 cm are known from Horenec near Bilina, Czech Republic. Another famous find from the Czech Republic is the "Karlsbader Sprudelstein", where aragonite forms large white nodules in the thermal springs of Karlovy Vary.

- Both Morocco (Tazouta) and Spain (Minglanilla) has produced aragonite thrilling crystals up to 20 cm and more.

- Tsumeb - one of the most prolific mineral localities known - has also produced large aragonite (variety tarnowitzite) crystals up to 20 cm.


Single aragonite (?) chandelier

Photo : Hazel Barton,

Photo Source : Titel image of 'Lechuguilla : Jewel of the
Underground' by Urs Widmer (see below)

Lechuguilla cave Essentials :

Mineralogy :

Aragonite and gypsum in outstanding dimensions

Crystal Size :

Crystal 'chandeliers' up to 3 meter size, though the individual crystals are much smaller

Geology & Origin :

Gypsification of limestone by sulphuric acids, crystallisation of speleothems probably by sublimation out of cave air (?)

Current status :    

Protected,access to the cave is restrictied to scientific caving expeditions

Remarks :

An excellent example for a cave formed by sulphuric acid solutions in contrast to normal karstification

Resources and relevant weblinks :

Though there is much online information available on this famous cave the best source for information is the following book by Urs Widmer with a marvellous photo documentation of many parts of the cave :


Please click the above image to visit Urs Widmers website



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