Cave Formation: How Solution Caves Form

Photo: Baatara Gorge
Photo: Baatara Gorge | Source

How Do Solution Caves Form?

What forces shape formation of caves? Humans have long been fascinated by caves and, eager to uncover their secrets, have sought to explore these underground chambers. Dissolution of soluble materials is a natural process that leads to cave formation around the world, giving humans a window on mysterious subterranean processes in intriguing karst environments.

It seems hard to believe that vast cave systems exist underground and gaining an understanding of how caves actually form sheds light on what at first seems somewhat a mysterious process.

Beginnings of Cave Formation: Acid in Water Dissolves Soluble Rock

The earth is in a constant state of flux and different forces contribute to cave formation, such as wave and volcanic action, glacial action or geological movement; however, many caves form in soluble rock, such as chalk, dolomite and gypsum, limestone, marble and salt. Caves that form out of soluble materials are called solution caves.

The largest caves, in fact, are formed in limestone, which dissolves through the action of both rainwater and groundwater charged with carbonic acid and other naturally occurring organic acids. This produces an environment scientists call karst, characterized by underground drainage systems.

Rainwater (containing carbon dioxide) trickles down through the soil layer to limestone beds. It picks up even more carbon dioxide as it works its way through the soil, which is rich in carbon dioxide by means of decaying organic matter. By a natural chemical process, the water and carbon dioxide form carbonic acid, which is a weak acid solution.

As this acidic water passes through hairline fractures and crevices in the ground and comes into contact with soluble minerals, rock, or more commonly, limestone bedrock, it dissolves these materials. Wherever the water runs, dissolution takes place, and as time passes, the cracks widen and form paths and eventually, a network of passageways.

Formation of a Cave at Water Table

Solution cave formation takes place at the water table. The water works its way downwards to where the ground is saturated. Once there, water collects and channels form. Because these channels increasingly hold more water, this contributes to a faster rate of dissolution of surrounding soluble materials. As this process continues, formation of a tunnel or a cave or an actual cave system develops. If the water table drops, the active area of cave formation shows a corresponding drop.

Solution caves eventually become large enough for humans to enter. Some of these caves are mammoth in size, with numerous chambers and cave galleries, which offer opportunities for exploration by cavers.

Mammoth Cave in Central Kentucky stretches for more than 345 miles.

Mammoth Cave Entrance

Entrance to Kentucky's Mammoth Cave.
Entrance to Kentucky's Mammoth Cave. | Source

Mammoth Cave


  1. Ford, D, Trevor, Limestones and Caves of Whales, Cambridge University Press, June 2, 2011
  2. Silvestru, Emil, The Cave Book, Master Books, April 30, 2008
  3. Waltham Tony, Great Caves of the World, Firefly Books, October 10, 2008
  4. Palmer, Arthur N., Cave Geology, CAVE BOOKS, July 1, 2007
  5. Davis, R.V., Limestone Caves, Dalesman Publishing Co Ltd, July 1978

Further Reading:

Burnham, Robert, Caves, Cliffs and Canyons, Discovery Communications

© 2013 Athlyn Green

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DDE profile image

DDE 3 years ago from Dubrovnik, Croatia

When I see a cave I ma always curious about what its like on the inside so mysterious Most interesting facts here about cave formation..

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    Athlyn Green profile image

    Athlyn Green885 Followers
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    Athlyn has an interest the natural world and exploring interesting places, such as caves and the delights within.

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