The Sistine Chapel of Crystals

This isn’t a natural disaster, but it’s a natural marvel. From an article I found in National Geographic, imagine this: spelunking in an oppressively hot, deep cave bearing mineral crystals the size of trees. Yeah, you read it. Crystals as tall as 30 feet.

From the article: “In the presence of such beauty and strangeness, people cast around for familiar metaphors. Staring at the crystals, García [a crystollographer] decided the cavern reminded him of a cathedral; he called it the Sistine Chapel of crystals.

“In both cathedrals and crystals there’s a sense of permanence and tranquillity that transcends the buzz of surface life. In both there is the suggestion of worlds beyond us.”

The Crystal Cave

Click the picture to make it bigger. See the little people?

This is the Cueva de los Cristales, or the Cave of Crystals, far beneath the Naica mine in Mexico, near the city of Chihuahua.

A magma intrusion simmers only a mile below the cave, so while most caves are constant and cool, the Cave of Crystals reaches up to 112 degrees Fahrenheit, with 90-100 percent humidity. Those allowed in the cave are only able to stay for up to 20 minutes.

How could a phenomenon such as this form? I pride myself in my writing abilities, but the writer at National Geographic put it the best.

“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 [a mineral like gypsum], 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.

“Above ground, volcanoes exploded and ice sheets pulverized the continents. Human generations came and went. Below, enwombed in silence and near complete stasis, the crystals steadily grew. Only around 1985, when miners using massive pumps lowered the water table and unknowingly drained the cave, did the process of accretion stop.”

A heavy steel door and Mexico law keep out miners and other scavengers, by crystallographers are concerned about the elements. Without water to sustain them, the crystals may bend and crack beneath their own weight. Now that they are open to air, carbon dioxide and other gases will dull their glory.

From the article:

“We stop for a moment to rest. Everything around us glitters; it is as though we are standing inside a star. Badino turns, and the lines crease at the corners of his eyes. He pulls his mask away. ‘You know,’ he says, smiling, ‘there would be worse places to die.’

“Cathedral, star, tomb. We look for something to anchor the otherworldly in the familiar. After half an hour we depart, soaked in sweat, our veins throbbing, and a visiting filmmaker asks what it was like. I have a little trouble. He nods, understanding.

“‘Es como un sueño de niño,’ he says. ‘It is like a child’s dream.'”

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One response to “The Sistine Chapel of Crystals

  1. Pingback: Mexico: The “Sistine Chapel of Crystals” · Global Voices

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