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cave minerals, mineralogy, processes, karst, lava tubes

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Perhaps man’s first motivation to explore caves, beyond using them as shelter, was the search for substances that were not available elsewhere: most of them were minerals. However, for a long time it was believed that the cave environment was not very interesting from the mineralogical point of view. This was due to the fact that most cave deposits are normally composed of a single compound: calcium carbonate. Therefore, the systematic study of cave mineralogy is of only recent origin. However, although only a limited number of natural cavities have been investigated in detail, about 350 cave minerals have already been observed, some of which are new to science. The presence of such unexpected richness is a direct consequence of the variety of rocks traversed by water or other fluids before entering a cave and the sediments therein. Different cave environments allow the development of various minerogenetic mechanisms, the most important of which are double exchange reactions, evaporation, oxidation, hydration-dehydration, sublimation, deposition from aerosols and vapors, and segregation. The cave temperature and pH/Eh strictly control most of them, although some are driven by microorganisms. The cave environment, due to its long-term stability, can sometimes allow for the development of huge euhedral crystals, such as those found in the Naica caves (Mexico), but the presence of extremely small yet complex aggregates of different minerals is far more common. Future development in the field of cave mineralogy will likely be focused mainly on hydrothermal and sulfuric-acid caves and on the role played by micro-organisms in controlling some of the most important minerogenetic processes in caves.

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International Journal of Speleology, v. 40, issue 2, p. 79-98