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"The world of crystals trapped in ice"
"Cryomineral formations of ice cavesh"

Wiaczesław Andrejczuk1, Ewa Teper2
1University of Silesia in Katowice, Faculty of Earth Sciences,
Department of Regional Geography and Tourism,
ul. Będzińska 60, 41-200 Sosnowiec
e-mail: geo@wnoz.us.edu.pl

2 University of Silesia in Katowice, Faculty of Earth Sciences,
Department of Geochemistry, Mineralogy and Petrography,
ul. Będzińska 60, 41-200 Sosnowiec
e-mail: ewa.teper@us.edu.pl

Crystal aggregate of calcite (CaCO3)

Split aggregate of gypsum crystals (CaSO4x 2H2O)

A general view of cryomineral crystals under electron microscope

Description popularizing the research project

Half-light gradually deepening into darkness, high humidity, dripping and trickling water, steady temperature of about 4°C - these are the conditions of a typical, schoolbook cave. Standard caves, which deserve mentioning in literature, are also richly decorated with speleothems i.e. cave formations. Even non-speleologists know the basic elements: stalactites, stalagmites, stalagnates. The names of less obvious details are often forgotten after graduating from school, but one guided visit to a tourist cave revises the glossary, and the view of draperies and cave pearls makes them unforgettable. Many of us have gone spelunking as amateurs or tourists and we are familiar with the view of karst forms created as the cave minerals dissolve and crystallise.
Yet, the world of underground chambers is much more differentiated than what we can see in the depths of easily accessible caves. Particularly interesting are ice caves which occur high in the mountains and glaciers e.g. Greenland or Spitsbergen. There, due to low temperatures, water solutions of minerals forming the rocks freeze in a way unlike icicles, when snow melting on the roof in the sun trickles and freezes in the evening. Thousands years of low temperature in the ice caves made the formations look as if a magic wand stopped creeks, waterfalls and frothing waves in midair. You can see them in tourist ice caves where spotlights give the formations even more charm.
Crystallised mineral solutions have also their own inner beauty which is revealed only in a focused beam of electrons of a scanning electron microscope. The images resemble tiny abstract plaster or calcite sculptures. It is probably here, inside the tiny cryo cells with trapped minerals, where the marvellous forms admired by tourists originate from.

Abstract

Comprehensive research of mineral formations, created when water solutions freeze in caves of high-altitude cold zones and periglacial areas, i.e. formation of underground glaciers, was conducted in 2001-2013 at the Department of Earth Sciences, University of Silesia. Process of freezing of aqueous solutions is usually accompanied by so-called cryochemical processes or chemical transformation of the solutions under the influence of decreasing temperature and changes in the form of water (transformation of liquid into ice). Water solutions, circulating in the cave environment, are characterized by increased mineralization (up to 2-3 g/l) due to active processes of dissolving the surrounding rocks. During the freezing process a gradual crystallization of the solution takes place. Ice is crystallized first, and then - due to gradual super- saturation of the solution - crystallization of various minerals takes place. Large-scale mineralogical studies with scanning electron microscopy (SEM), made it possible to discover the amazing mineralogical diversity of cave ice and the beauty of the world of cryominerals.

 

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