Cave development on the Caribbean coast of the Yucatan Peninsula


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January 2006


Extensive flooded cave systems are developed in a zone 8–12 km inland of the east coast of the Yucatan Peninsula, Quintana Roo, Mexico. In plan, the systems comprise cross-linked anastomosing networks composed of horizontal elliptical tubes (which are actively developing where associated with the present fresh water/saline water mixing zone) and canyon-shaped passages. Both forms are heavily modified by sediment and speleothem infill, and extensive collapse. The pattern of Quintana Roo caves differs both from the mixing chamber form of flank-margin eogenetic caves, and also the dendritic and rectilinear maze patterns of epigenetic continental (telogenetic) caves. Unlike the latter, Quintana Roo caves are formed by coastal zone fresh water/saline water mixing processes. While mixing dissolution is also responsible for development of flank-margin caves, these may be typical of small islands and arid areas with limited coastal discharge, whereas Quintana Roo–type caves are formed when coastal discharge is greater. In the Quintana Roo caves, multiple phases of cave development are associated with glacio-eustatic changes in sea level. Two critical conditions control cave development following lowstands: (1) if the passage remains occupied by the mixing zone and connected to underlying deep cave systems, and (2) for passages above the mixing zone, if active freshwater flow is maintained by tributaries. In the first case, inflow of saline water drives mixing dissolution, enabling removal of the lowstand carbonate fill and continued passage enlargement. In the second, despite limited dissolution in the fresh water, continued removal of uncemented sediments can maintain the cave void. Where neither of these conditions is met, enlargement will cease, and the cave void will become occluded by collapse and sediment infill.

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