Rapid stalactite growth in Siberia
Natalya Polina was showing me around a geological museum in southern Siberia. She explained, “This is a cross-section from a stalactite. The rings show how much it has grown each year”.1 My interest was aroused by a very wide ring which grew well over a centimetre in one year (see picture on the right).
“What causes the rings?” I asked Natalya.
“The dirt that surface water carries into the cave varies between summer and winter,” she replied. “There is more dirt in summer so a dark ring is deposited, whereas in winter, when the surface is covered with ice and snow, the deposit is cleaner.”
An internet site on geology gives a similar interpretation:
“Paleoclimatologists analyze the growth rate of stalactites and stalagmites to reveal patterns of past rainfall. This graph shows the thickness of near-annual growth rings for the past 450 years from a stalagmite in Carlsbad Cavern. Thick rings indicate a relatively wet climate, while thin rings indicate a dry climate.”2
The scale on the graph in question is graduated in 0.1 mm steps, from zero to 0.3 mm. By contrast, the Siberian ring was about 15 millimetres wide—50 times greater than the widest rings on the Carlsbad chart. This is because the Carlsbad Cavern is found in the New Mexico desert, where rainfall is low, even in the wetter years. But the stalactite Natalya Polina showed me was recovered from the Altai Mountains of south-western Siberia, where summer rainfall is much greater.
A growing contradiction
The Siberian experience contradicts conventional beliefs that stalactites grow slowly over long periods of time.
For example, one British Broadcasting Corporation educational program states:
“Stalactites (from the ceiling) are built up from many successive growth layers … . As the drop of water hangs from the ceiling, it loses some of its carbon dioxide. This makes it less acidic. That means that it can’t hold all of the dissolved minerals that it had picked up, on its way through the cracks above. The drop leaves a few crystals of the mineral calcite behind, and a stalactite begins to grow. Drop after drop, over hundreds and thousands of years, can end up leaving some big stuff!”3
An authoritative source on speleothems (mineral formations in caves) states: “It may take one hundred to one hundred fifty years to form an inch of material to the speleothems.”4
Another study quotes maximum stalactite growth rates of millimetres per year.5
A skeptic trying to dismiss creationist claims writes: “As for stalactites, the Bulletin of the National Speleological Society (37: p.21, 1975) gave their observed growth rates as ranging from 0.1 to 10 centimeters per thousand years. An exceptional spurt of growth might exceed the higher rate for short periods of time, but it could no more be maintained than a winning streak at the Las Vegas poker tables. Moore and Sullivan (1978, p. 47) give an upper average rate of ‘only a little more’ than 0.1 mm/year [10 centimeters or 4 inches per thousand years].”6
With such tiny growth rates for cave formations the stalactites must be unimaginably ancient. However, the stalactite from Siberia shows that growth can be very rapid.
Moreover, the Siberian example is much more representative of the type of climate that would have prevailed during the post-Flood Ice Age, when large parts of the Northern hemisphere were covered by glaciers. In such circumstances stalactites would form rapidly, meaning they are not as “old” as we might think based on recent growth rates.
Rainfall and drought
It is generally recognised that the era of widespread glaciation in the Northern hemisphere included both “warmer” and “colder” periods—although the duration of such periods is open to discussion. To a certain extent the climate of Europe and North America was similar to that of Siberia today.
The stereotype of Siberia is that it is a land of constant cold. But although the land experiences long, frozen winters, it also has short, hot summers. Every year, throughout most of the region (apart from mountain peaks) the surface ice melts. Streams run from below mountain glaciers when ice melts in the summer. Spring thaws often cause local flooding. Although the flood waters eventually reach the Arctic Ocean, much is absorbed into the ground.
What would happen if there were limestone caves containing stalactites underground? Holli Riebeek’s website article on Paleoclimatology2 states that the amount of growth of a stalactite (or other speleothem) “is an indicator of how much ground water dripped into the cave. Little growth might indicate a drought, just as rapid growth could point to heavy precipitation.”
In a climate similar to that of Siberia, this alternation between apparent “drought” and “heavy precipitation” would reflect seasonal variation, as far as water coming into a cave is concerned.7 In winter, when the ground is covered with ice, there would be a “drought” underground. However, when the ice and snow begin to melt at the end of winter, taking perhaps several weeks to do so, the caves would be constantly “raining”. The thick accumulations of snow and ice would contain few impurities and be relatively clean.
Growth ceased altogether?
Long-age geologists face a dilemma explaining how the layers within a stalactite took such long periods of time to grow. To stretch the time, they say that the layers indicate times when growth ceased altogether.
Holli Riebeek explains: “when the speleothems stop growing, the outside becomes dirty and eroded in places, giving it a dull appearance. A growing speleothem looks smooth and wet.”
However, if the layers indicate long periods of no growth, then each new layer was only added after a long pause. In some scenarios this might be thousands of years. Emil Silvestru (an expert in cave formation) points out that this means “the water drops start arriving again at exactly the same point, with millimetre precision, to fall on the tip of the stalagmite”.
He goes on to say:
“Such explanations require common sense to take a nap. Thorough investigation shows that the path followed by water from the surface to the dripping point of a stalagmite is long, winding and extremely sensitive to the slightest change (remember, chemistry is involved, too). Moreover, huge amounts of field data reveal that karstland surfaces change dramatically and quickly, in a matter of centuries”.8
I was reminded of Emil Silvestru’s comments when Natalya Polina described how the growth rings on a stalactite, from the Altai region of Siberia, represent years (rather than centuries). What she said made sense to me.
Natalya allowed me to photograph the stalactite (see photo). Using my watch for scale, you can see that the wide growth ring on the sample to the left is about 1½ centimetres wide—a phenomenal amount for one year’s growth.
Stalactites are young
The climate of Europe, and much of the northern hemisphere, in the not-so-distant past was not dissimilar to that of Siberia today. So it makes sense to judge the age of European stalactites using stalactite growth rates in Siberia rather than those in the Nevada desert. Stalactites grow rapidly today under Siberian conditions, and they would have grown rapidly in Europe and North America during the “Ice Age”. The age of stalactites and the caves they adorn may in fact be only a few thousand years, which is consistent with the time passed since the end of Noah’s Flood.
References and notes
- The sample I saw is displayed at the Museum of Stone in the settlement of Maima, near to Gorno-Altaisk in the Altai Republic (of the Russian Federation). Return to text.
- Riebeek, H., Paleoclimatology: written in the Earth, earthobservatory.nasa.gov/Study/Paleoclimatology_Speleothems, 7 June 2006. Return to text.
- Underground features of a limestone landscape www.bbc.co.uk/scotland/education/int/geog/limestone/underground/underground_print.html, 7 June 2006. Return to text.
- Chadick, D., Cave Formations, www.scsc.k12.ar.us/ChadickD/cave_formations.htm, 7 June 2006. Return to text.
- Short, M.B. et al., The platonic ideal of stalactite growth www.physics.arizona.edu/~gold/stalactite.pdf, 7 June 2006. Return to text.
- Matson, D.E., Young-earth “proof” number 22: The largest stalactites and flowstones could have formed in about 4,400 years, www.infidels.org/library/modern/dave_matson/young-earth/specific_arguments/stalactites.html, 7 June 2006. Return to text.
- Permafrost is not an issue in this context because caves do not form in areas of permafrost. In any case, permafrost often occurs in lenses of relatively limited extent rather than being a constant feature of the underground terrain. Return to text.
- Silvestru, E., Caves for all seasons, Creation 25(3):44–49, 2003; creation.com/all-seasons. Return to text.