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Inside the Crystal Palace

October 25, 2009

 Inside the Crystal Palace

Crystal forest: People clambering through the Cave of Crystals in Mexico wearing suits and backpacks of ice-cool air to cope with the 112F temperature

Crystal forest: People clambering through the Cave of Crystals in Mexico wearing suits and backpacks of ice-cool air to cope with the 112F temperature

    A remarkable geological discovery occurred in April, 2000 while a pair of mining brothers worked in the Naica mine. The Naica mine is located in a remote part of northern Mexico and is one of the most productive lead mines in the world, and a huge supplier of the world’s silver as well. Deep within the mine, nearly 1000 feet below the surface while drilling, they entered into cavern filled with massive crystals. The cavern is now called Cueva de los Cristales, or Cave of Crystals.

    What they laid eyes upon shocked them and those that have followed. Although they had come upon crystal pockets inside the mine before, news of the bewildering discovery traveled quickly sending a worldwide shockwave through the geological community. 

Off World Environment

   Inside the cavern is selenite, a form of the common mineral gypsum. What is intriguing as the massive translucent crystals themselves some of which measure over 35 feet in length and several feet thick weighing up to 55 tons, is the caverns oppressive environment. Located 1000 feet below the surface with intense heat generated from a magma intrusion a mile below the cavern’s floor, helps create an off-world environment which is not favorable to humans. Temperatures exceed 110 degrees Fahrenheit combined with its humidity around 100%, this is no ordinary cave as it can easily kill in just 15 minutes. It is one of the most deadly environments found on earth. Special equipment to cool the explorers and scientists was designed by the Italian exploration group La Venta. Even with all the protective body cooling measures, most visits last a quick 20 minutes. Not to be deterred, scientists from around the world have been eager for access to investigate and learn more.

A Perfect World for Crystals 

The giant obelisks are formed from groundwater saturated in calcium sulphate which filtered through the cave system millions of years ago.

The giant obelisks are formed from groundwater saturated in calcium sulphate which filtered through the cave system millions of years ago.

    While the Cave of Crystals can easily be lethal for humans, it is the perfect nursery for crystals. Before the cave’s discovery, the cavern was immersed in water. All that changed when Nica mining operations in 1985 pumped water out of the mine which eventually drained the cavern containing the massive selenite crystals. Crystallographer Juan Manuel García-Ruiz was one of the first to study the 500,000 year old Naica crystals beginning in 2001.

(Excerpt below from Neil Shea, National Geo 11-08)

    More familiar with microscopic crystals, García was dazzled by the proportions of the Naica giants. By examining bubbles of liquid trapped inside the crystals, García and his colleagues pieced together the story of the crystals’ growth. For hundreds of thousands of years, groundwater saturated with calcium sulfate filtered through the many caves at Naica, warmed by heat from the magma below. As the magma cooled, water temperature inside the cave eventually stabilized at about 136°F. At this temperature minerals in the water began converting to selenite, molecules of which were laid down like tiny bricks to form crystals. In other caves under the mountain, the temperature fluctuated or the environment was somehow disturbed, resulting in different and smaller crystals. But inside the Cave of Crystals, conditions remained unchanged for millennia. (end excerpt) Unfortunately, for now, this Crystal cave is not officially protected even though the mine’s owners have set up safeguards. In Mexico, mining and construction projects can be stopped to save archaeological sites, today, minerals in Mexico have no such protection given to them. Hopefully this will change with the discovery of Cueva de los Cristales, the Cave of Crystals.       

 

 

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