Origin and morphology of limestone caves
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Limestone caves form along ground-water paths of greatest discharge and solutional aggressiveness. Flow routes that acquire increasing discharge accelerate in growth, while others languish with negligible growth. As discharge increases, a maximum rate of wall retreat is approached, typically about 0.01-0.1 cm/yr, determined by chemical kinetics but nearly unaffected by further increase in discharge. The time required to reach the maximum rate is nearly independent of kinetics and varies directly with flow distance and temperature and inversely with initial fracture width, discharge, gradient, and PCO2. Most caves require 104 - 105 yr to reach traversable size. Their patterns depend on the mode of ground-water recharge. Sinkhole recharge forms branching caves with tributaries that join downstream as higher-order passages. Maze caves form where (1) steep gradients and great undersaturation allow many alternate paths to enlarge at similar rates or (2) discharge or renewal of undersaturation is uniform along many alternate routes. Flood water can form angular networks in fractured rock, anastomotic mazes along low-angle partings, or sponge-work where intergranular pores are dominant. Diffuse recharge also forms networks and spongework, often aided by mixing of chemically different waters. Ramiform caves, with sequential outward branches, are formed mainly by rising thermal or H2S-rich water. Dissolution rates in cooling water increase with discharge, CO2 content, temperature, and thermal gradient, but only at thermal gradients of more than 0.01 °C/m can normal ground-water CO2 form caves without the aid of hypogenic acids or mixing. Artesian flow has no inherent tendency to form maze caves. Geologic structure and stratigraphy influence cave orientation and extent, but alone they do not determine branch-work versus maze character.