Wednesday, 19 November 2014

Ice Giant World

In the 1940's and 1950's the sport of caving received a huge popularity boost. Today, the sport is just as popular, if not more popular than ever. The reason for this is that the caving networks of earth are one of the last remaining frontiers of exploration. It is estimated - although it is not possible to know for sure, due to the exact number of caves in existence being unknown - that only 50% of the world's caves have been explored. But there is one particular type of cave that calls out to the extreme adventurers in the world; a form of cave that is both deadly and beautiful. These caves can be found within the frozen terrain and wastelands of earth. They are the ice caves.

An ice cave can be any type of natural cave from a glacier cave, to fracture and talus caves, that contain a significant amount of ice. It has been calculated that in order for a cave to be cold enough to form the required amount of ice to be classified as an ice cave, there must be a significant section of the cave that remains at or below zero Celsius all year round. However, not only does the cave have to maintain a low temperature all year, there also has to be a significant amount of surface water within the local proximity, which can then access the cave and freeze along the walls, roof and ground. Once the water has frozen, the cave sparkles under the light like a giant diamond. Contained within these caves are stalactites, stalagmites, flowstones, giant icicles, ice draperies and frozen lakes, all of varying shapes and sizes dependent upon the cave in which you are stood. Also, if there is a considerable amount of water vapor within the cave, then hexagonal ice crystals may form on the ceiling. Each hexagon is usually perfectly forged, as if it were part of a giant geometrical carving. It would be entirely fair to say that no two ice caves are alike. 

The largest explored ice caves in the world are located in Austria. They are high above the village of Werfen, within the Tennen mountains of central Austria. Roughly 60 km (37 miles) south of Salzburg, or 350km (217 miles) west of Vienna; and are nick-named the 'ice giant world'. These caves run for 48 km (30 miles) and offer amazing frozen sculptures and natural fluid architecture that is unlike anywhere else on earth. The natural scientist Anton Posselt was responsible for the discovery of these caves in 1879; yet he only explored the first 200 meters due to rumours from the locals that this 'ice giant' caving system was physically the entrance to hell. As an obviously religious and god-fearing man, he deemed it wise to cut his quest short and leave it to somebody less concerned. It wasn't until the non-hell-fearing Alexander von Mork appeared on the scene in 1912 that the caves were fully explored - and the good news is that no doors to hell, tridents or rams horns were discovered. Tours of these caves are offered between the months of May and October, and as you would expect, the advice is to dress warmly.   

Other such ice caves can be found in Switzerland, Russia, Slovakia, Iceland, USA, Canada and undoubtedly many more countries. However, the cave that is deemed the most beautiful yet discovered is the Skaftafell ice cave in southern Iceland. The ice of this cave is reportedly a strong blue colour which can be best witnessed after a strong downpour of rain. It is also said that when the glacier that contains this cave moves as little as one-millimetre due to the progressively defrosting surroundings, the entire cave resounds a loud unnerving creek.

Due to the nature of ice caves and the annual rotation of the seasons, certain sections of these caves sometimes melt during the Summer and then begin to re-freeze again in the Autumn. This means that year after year the size and shape of these ice caves differs. Therefore, if you visited the same cave for five consecutive years, you would see a different ice cave each and every time.


An ice caver exploring the shallow underground tunnels of a glowing ice cave.

The largest explored ice cave in the world, known in English as the 'ice giant world'. This cave was originally believed to have been the entrance to hell.

Skaftafell ice cave in Iceland. This cave is considered to be the most beautiful ice cave yet discovered.

A close-up photograph of a perfectly formed, protruding hexagonal ice crystal. 

- Until the next Butterfly...