Wednesday, October 29, 2008


The cave is located deep inside Naica Mountain in the Chihauhuan Desert of Mexico. The mountain sits on a set of fault lines over a magma chamber two and a half kilometres below. This chamber sends superhot metal-rich fluids circulating throughout the mountain making the walls glow red.

The veins of lead, silver and zinc have been mined since the early 20th Century. The deeper levels of the mine are flooded so the miners pumped them dry and in 2000, Juan and Pedro Sanchez broke through a tunnel into this cavern.

The gypsum crystals started out in hot water saturated with calcium sulphate but as the magma began to cool about 600,000 years ago the minerals precipitated out of the solution and began to grow. The growth was extremely slow and researchers will be looking at how long it took for a crystal of 37.4 feet to reach that length, how old is the cave and why have many of the crystals fallen to the floor.

They are looking for signs of life that survive in extreme environments. Inside some of the crystals are fluid inclusions that may contain microbial DNA. One researcher is using a Raman spectrometer which beams light into the crystals then analyses the reflected light for wavelengths characteristic of organic life.

The orange jumpsuits worn by the team are specially designed and packed with ice as the cave has a temperature of around 49 degrees Celsius and over 80 percent humidity making it deadly to explore. One scientist said even with the suit they had about half an hour before feeling the effects, losing concentration and bodily strength.

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