Reading: Karst Topography


Throughout the world karst landscapes vary from rolling hills dotted with sinkholes, as found in portions of the central United States, to jagged hills and pinnacle karst found in the tropics. The development of all karst landforms requires the presence of rock which is capable of being dissolved by surface water or ground water.

The term karst describes a distinctive topography that indicates dissolution (also called chemical solution) of underlying soluble rocks by surface water or ground water. Although commonly associated with carbonate rocks (limestone and dolomite) other highly soluble rocks such as evaporates (gypsum and rock salt) can be sculpted into karst terrain.

Understanding caves and karst is important because ten percent of the Earth’s surface is occupied by karst landscape and as much as a quarter of the world’s population depends upon water supplied from karst areas. Though most abundant in humid regions where carbonate rock is present, karst terrain occurs in temperate, tropical, alpine and polar environments. Karst features range in scale from microscopic (chemical precipitates) to entire drainage systems and ecosystems which cover hundreds of square miles, and broad karst plateaus.

Although karst processes sculpt beautiful landscapes, karst systems are very vulnerable to ground water pollution due to the relatively rapid rate of water flow and the lack of a natural filtration system. This puts local drinking water supplies at risk of being contaminated. In the mid 1980’s, flooding of caves in the highly populated area of Bowling Green, Kentucky, caused industrial waste to leak into the vast system of underground fissures polluting the ground water in local wells. Due to urban expansion millions of dollars is spent annually in the United States to repair damage to roads, buildings and other structures which are built on unstable karst surfaces.

Karst Topography

The degree of development of karst landforms varies greatly from region to region. Large drainage systems in karst areas are likely to have both fluvial (surface) and karst (underground) drainage components. As stated in the introduction, the term karst describes a distinctive topography that indicates dissolution of underlying rocks by surface water or ground water.

Water falls as rain or snow and soaks into the soil. The water becomes weakly acidic because it reacts chemically with carbon dioxide that occurs naturally in the atmosphere and the soil. This acid is named carbonic acid and is the same compound that makes carbonated beverages taste tangy. Rainwater seeps downward through the soil and through fractures in the rock responding to the force of gravity. The carbonic acid in the moving ground water dissolves the bedrock along the surfaces of joints, fractures and bedding planes, eventually forming cave passages and caverns.

Limestone is a sedimentary rock consisting primarily of calcium carbonate in the form of the mineral calcite. Rainwater dissolves the limestone by the following reaction: Calcite + Carbonic acid = Calcium ions dissolved in ground water + Bicarbonate ions dissolved in ground water.

Cracks and joints that interconnect in the soil and bedrock allow the water to reach a zone below the surface of the land where all the fractures and void spaces are completely filled (also known as saturated) with water. This water-rich zone is called the saturated zone and its upper surface is called the water table. The volume of void space (space filled with air or water) in soil or bedrock is termed porosity. The larger the proportion of voids in a given volume of soil or rock the greater the porosity. When these voids are interconnected, water or air (or other fluids) can migrate from void to void. Thus the soil or bedrock is said to be permeable because fluids (air and water) can easily move through them. Permeable bedrock makes a good aquifer, a rock layer that holds and conducts water. If the ground water that flows through the underlying permeable bedrock is acidic and the bedrock is soluble, a distinctive type of topography, karst topography, can be created.

The first part of our animation shows evolution of karst landforms created by downward movement of water accompanied by dissolution of rock and mass transport of sediments in stream channels. In tropical areas with thick massive limestones, a remarkable and distinctive landscape of jagged hills and narrow gorges completely dominates the landscape. Movement of solution along fractures and joints etches the bedrock and leaves limestone blocks as isolated spires or pinnacles. Pinnacles range from small features a few inches tall to intermediate forms a few feet tall to large pinnacles hundreds of feet tall. Besides the etching of pinnacles and residual hills, sheets of flowing water move down sloping surfaces creating a variety of etched surface features. Our computer animation shows the dominant landforms, such as pinnacles, cones, and towers, commonly found in the tropical karst environment of northern Puerto Rico.

Our paper model represents another type of karst landscape, that of a rolling limestone plain such as is found in south-central Kentucky, northern Florida, and the Highland Rim of central Tennessee where doline karst is the dominate feature. Doline karst is the most widely distributed type of karst landscape. The landscape is dotted with sinkholes (dolines) which can vary widely in number and size. For the Sinkhole Plain in central Kentucky, there are approximately 5.4 sinkholes per square kilometer over a 153 square kilometer area. For north Florida there are almost 8 sinkholes per square kilometer over a 427 square kilometer area (White, 1988, table 4.1, page 100).

Karst topography dominated by sinkholes or dolines usually has several distinct surface features. Our paper model shows features normally associated with karst topography. Sinkholes (also known as dolines) are surface depressions formed by either: 1) the dissolution of bedrock forming a bowl-shaped depression, or 2) the collapse of shallow caves that were formed by dissolution of the bedrock. These sinkholes or shallow basins may fill with water forming lakes or ponds. Springs are locations where ground water emerges at the surface of the earth. Disappearing streams are streams which terminate abruptly by flowing or seeping into the ground. Disappearing streams are evidence of disrupted surface drainage and thus indicate the presence of an underground drainage system. Cave entrances are natural openings in the earth large enough to allow a person to enter. Caves may reflect a complex underground drainage system.

* Numbers are rounded to nearest kilometer
A Brief List of the Longest Caves in the United States
 Name  Location Distance Mapped*
Mammoth Cave—Flint Ridge System Kentucky 500 km
Jewel Cave South Dakota 118 km
Wind Cave South Dakota 73 km
Friars Hole System West Virginia 68 km
Fisher Ridge Cave System Kentucky 64 km

What do Caves Contain?

Moving water may transport earth materials into and through caves physically or chemically. Caves contain interesting features as a result of the physical and chemical processes that form them. Among these features are breakdown blocks of rock formed by collapse of cave ceilings. Also seen are sediments containing boulders, sand, silt, and clay deposited from water flowing in and through cave passages and conduits. Speleogens are irregular or distinctive shapes of carbonate rock etched from bedrock by dripping or running water. Speleogens can form where bedrock is not uniform in chemical composition. Consequently, the less soluble rock dissolves slower than adjacent more soluble rock through time. The less soluble rock tends to stand in relief and projects from walls and ceilings of caves.

Away from their entrances, caves usually provide a relatively constant temperature and humidity over a long period of time. Thus, caves provide an ideal environment for chemical deposition of minerals. As water laden with dissolved carbonate seeps into the air-filled cave passage, it may lose excess carbon dioxide to the cave atmosphere, or the water itself may evaporate, causing the dripwater to precipitate secondary carbonate or other minerals from solution, creating cave formations or speleothems including cone-shaped stalactites, stalagmites, flowstone or rimstone, or other interesting shapes. Caves in karst areas often have stalactites (icicle-like masses of chemical limestone) that hang from cave ceilings and stout stalagmites protruding from the cave floor. Stalactites and stalagmites can be a few inches to several feet long. Sometimes the drip water will flow down the walls and over the cave floor creating flowstone or rimstone deposits. Where drip water seeps from a joint and then drips over the edges of ledges, deposits of great complexity known as draperies are formed. The color of dripstones and flowstones comes from organic and/or iron oxide compounds brought in from the surface, giving the speleothems an orange brown color or from the presence of oxides and hydroxides of iron and manganese which give the speleothems a deep brown or black color.

What Lives Underground?

Some scientists are interested in cave ecology and how cave animals interact with cave microclimates. Animals found in caves include everything from surface dwelling animals like raccoons that occasionally use the cave, to animals that have adapted exclusively to life in the cave (troglobites). Troglobites cannot survive outside caves. These may include such diverse animals as eyeless fish and crayfish, cave beetles, flatworms, and other unusual types of insects. Many of these animals have lost body pigmentation and are white or transparent in color. Although the cave environment appears to be stable, change can and does occur. The temperature of the cave varies due to air movement near the entrances and the temperature of water entering the cave. In reality, some caves have their own weather systems which create wind due to temperature and pressure differences between the entrance and interior passageways.

Many animals, such as bats, cave crickets, and pack rats, regularly visit, raise their young, or hibernate in caves. These animals are called trogloxenes . Caves may support large numbers of different types of bats. Bats may be among the most beneficial animals to people and the ecosystem as insect-eaters and plant pollinators. The little brown bat can eat 600 mosquitoes in an hour thus performing the work of a “natural insecticide,” helping control crop pests and other insects. The Mammoth Cave-Flint Ridge System in Kentucky, which is the most extensive cave system in the world, has a biodiversity of 43 mammals, 15 reptiles, 19 amphibians and 3 fish. In 1981, the United Nations designated Mammoth Cave National Park as a World Heritage Site. Follow this link for an excellent summary of the Mammoth Cave area and other caves found in the U. S. National Park System.

In 1988 the United States passed the Federal Cave Resource Protection Act which preserves and protects all significant caves found on federal land for future generations of Americans.

What’s in it for Me?

Knowing where karst features are located could help city and town planners, as well as individual landowners, to make decisions on where to build houses and other structures. This information could save cities thousand of dollars in repairs to buildings that are built on unstable karst terrain.

Karst springs supply drinking water to millions of people. Knowledge of karst terrain and the movement of water in underground drainage systems is important for maintaining good quality and safe drinking water. Pollution of ground water is a major problem in karst terrain.

Caves provide a venue for recreation. Although most of the caves located in National Parks are protected, there are over 200 commercial show caves nationwide which are open to the public. Recreational caving has become a popular hobby. The National Speleological Society has about 20,000 active affiliates nationwide.

Deposits preserved in caves can tell geologists about past climates. Fossils and artifacts found in caves help geologists and archaeologists unravel the prehistory of an area.

Caves support a unique community of bacteria, fungi and animals not seen on the surface of the Earth.


  • Why is there often a wind at the mouth of a cave?
  • Do large caves form in dry environments above the water table?
  • Do dripstone features such as stalactites and stalagmites form in caves that are below or above the water table? Why or why not?
  • Is the water table always level?
  • Should a person explore a cave alone?
  • Should a person build a house near a sinkhole?
  • Should a person collect stalactites and stalagmites?
  • Should a person collect cave-dwelling animals?


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