Thursday, January 13, 2011

World's Biggest Cave

This came out last week. The world's largest cave is in Vietnam, Son Doong, a huge recently-discovered underground labyrinth.

James Owen
for National Geographic News
Updated January 3, 2011 (Published July 24, 2009)

At 262-by-262 feet (80-by-80 meters) in most places, the Son Doong cave beats out the previous world-record holder, Deer Cave in the Malaysian section of the island of Borneo.

Deer Cave is no less than 300-by-300 feet (91-by-91 meters), but it's only about a mile (1.6 kilometers) long.

By contrast, explorers walked 2.8 miles (4.5 kilometers) into Son Doong, in Phong Nha-Ke Bang National Park, before being blocked by seasonal floodwaters—and they think that the passage is even longer.

In addition, for a couple of miles Son Doong reaches more than 460-by-460 feet (140-by-140 meters), said Adam Spillane, a member of the British Cave Research Association expedition that explored the massive cavern.

Laser Precision

The team found an underground river running through the first 1.6 miles (2.5 kilometers) of the limestone cavern, as well as giant stalagmites more than 230 feet (70 meters) high.

The explorers surveyed Son Doong's size using laser-based measuring devices.

Such modern technology allows caves to be measured to the nearest millimeter, said Andy Eavis, president of the International Union of Speleology, the world caving authority, based in France.

Noisy and Intimidating

Son Doong had somehow escaped detection during previous British caving expeditions to the region, which is rich in limestone grottos.

"The terrain in that area of Vietnam is very difficult," said expedition team member Spillane.

"The cave is very far out of the way. It's totally covered in jungle, and you can't see anything on Google Earth," he added, referring to the free 3-D globe software.

"You've got to be very close to the cave to find it," Spillane said. "Certainly, on previous expeditions, people have passed within a few hundred meters of the entrance without finding it."
Bigger Caves Waiting?

Of more concern to the caving team were the poisonous centipedes that live in Son Doong.

The explorers also spotted monkeys entering through the roof of the cave to feed on snails, according to Spillane.

A biologist will accompany the team on its return visit next year to survey the cave's subterranean wildlife.

Eavis, of the International Union of Speleology, added that there are almost certainly bigger cave passages awaiting discovery around the world.

"That's the fantastic thing about caving," he said.

Satellite images hint, for example, that caves even larger than Son Doong lie deep in the Amazon rain forest, he said.

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