(ORDO NEWS) — A group of Chinese scientists have discovered a new giant karst funnel, at the bottom of which a forest grows.
The sinkhole is 630 feet (192 meters) deep, enough to swallow the Gateway Arch in St. Louis, according to the Xinhua news agency.
A team of cavers and cavers descended into the sinkhole and discovered that it had three cave entrances, as well as ancient trees 131 feet (40 meters) high, stretching their branches towards the sunlight filtering through the sinkhole entrance. .
“This is great news,” said George Veni, executive director of the National Cave and Karst Research Institute (NCKRI) in the US and an international cave expert.
Weni did not participate in the exploration of the cave, but the organization that did participate, China Geological Survey Institute of Karst Geology, is a sister institute of NCKRI.
Weni told Live Science that the discovery is not a surprise because southern China is home to karst landforms, a landscape prone to dramatic sinkholes and otherworldly caves.
Karst landscapes are formed mainly by the dissolution of bedrock, Veni said. Rainwater, which is slightly acidic, absorbs carbon dioxide as it passes through the soil, becoming more acidic.
Then it seeps, rushes and flows through the cracks in the underlying rock, gradually expanding them and turning them into tunnels and voids.
Over time, if the cave chamber grows large enough, the ceiling can gradually collapse, revealing huge sinkholes.
“Due to local differences in geology, climate and other factors, karst can look completely different on the surface,” he said.
“So, in China there is an incredibly spectacular karst with huge sinkholes, giant cave entrances and so on. In other parts of the world, you go out into the karst and you don’t notice anything. The sinkholes can be quite modest, only a meter or two in diameter. Entrances caves can be very small, so you have to squeeze through them.”
In fact, 25 percent of the United States is karst, or pseudokarst, where there are caves carved not by dissolution but by other factors such as volcanism or wind, Veni said. About 20 percent of the earth’s land mass consists of one of these two cave-rich landscapes.
The new discovery took place in the Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region, near the village of Pingye in Leie County, Xinhua reports. Guangxi is known for its fabulous karst formations, which range from sinkholes to rock pillars and natural bridges, which have earned the region UNESCO World Heritage Site status.
The interior of the sinkhole is 1,004 feet (306 meters) long and 492 feet (150 meters) wide, Zhang Yuanhai, senior engineer at the Institute of Karst Geology, told Xinhua.
In Mandarin, such huge sinkholes are called “tiankeng”, or “heavenly pit”, and the bottom of the sinkhole really looks like another world.
Chen Lixin, who led the expedition team, told Xinhua that the thick undergrowth at the bottom of the sinkhole was as high as a man’s shoulders. Karst caves and sinkholes can become an oasis for life, Veni said.
“I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that these caves contain species that science has not yet reported or described,” Lixin said.
In one of the caves in West Texas, according to Venya, tropical ferns grow in abundance, the spores of which, apparently, were brought to this secluded place by bats migrating to South and Central America.
Sinks and caves not only serve as a refuge for life, but also are conduits to aquifers, or deep storage groundwater. Karst aquifers are the sole or main source of water for 700 million people worldwide, Veni says. But they are easy to access and drain – or pollute.
“Karst aquifers are the only types of aquifers that can be polluted with solid waste,” Veni said. “I’ve pulled car batteries, car bodies, barrels of God knows what and bottles of God knows what from the active cave stream.”
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