Scientists Discover that Snowy River Is Flowing Once More, July 23, 2007

Snowy River, Ft. Stanton Cave

by Dr. Penelope Boston, director of Cave & Karst Studies Program at New Mexico Tech

Right: Photo of Snowy River by John Cochran

FT. STANTON, N.M. – Snowy River, a sparkling underground "frozen river" made of calcite crystals, has been found to be flowing with liquid water for probably the first time in 150 years.

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Snowy River, a crystalline river over two miles in length discovered in Ft. Stanton Cave, N.M. in 2001, has already been the subject of major scientific findings. The cave was closed to the public by the U.S. Bureau of Land Management in 2004, until a safer entry route could be found. That route has just been dug by BLM volunteer cavers breaking through on June 30, 2007.

New studies have revealed that the formerly dry river of crystalline minerals is now running with between one-half to one-and-one-half feet of water. The river has been studied by scientists from New Mexico Tech, the New Mexico Bureau of Geology and Mineral Resources, the University of New Mexico, and the National Cave and Karst Research Institute, revealing aspects of its age, its hydrology, exotic manganese-eating microorganisms, and antibiotic producing bacteria on the walls, among other findings.

Snowy River Cave

Left: Photo of Snowy River by John Ganter

This new access to the passage coupled with unprecedented flowing water will now allow scientists to study the active hydrology of the cave and its relationship to aboveground water sources, to continue to search for unique microorganisms of potential human pharmaceutical and industrial significance (e.g. antibiotics and novel enzymes), and to conduct paleoclimate studies on cave minerals and deposits which preserve the story of past climate in our region and are critical to managing our precious water resources in the face of future climate change.



Snowy River Cave

Right: Photo by Mike Bilbo of BLM showing high calcite line on plunge pool

In 2001, three long-time New Mexico cavers and a teenager from Hobbs found a scientific wonder of unparalleled beauty and scientific value by digging a passage from inside Ft. Stanton Cave, near the town of Capitan in Lincoln County, N.M.

John McLean, Lloyd Swartz, Don Becker and Andy Grieco named this beautiful river of sparkling white crystalline calcite, "Snowy River."

Snowy River is unique in the world, the largest single calcite formation known anywhere, at over two miles in length and more to be found with future exploration.

Managed by the Roswell office of the U.S. Bureau of Land Management, several exploration trips and a science assessment trip were conducted in 2003 producing some amazing finds.

Based on limited data compiled by Dr. Victor Polyak at the University of New Mexico, it appears that the top layer of the calcite river is about 150 years old. In addition to the crystalline river itself, there are many other scientifically significant features, including black shiny crusts on the walls.

Dr. Penny Boston

Left: Dr. Penny Boston in her native habitat

From these crusts, Dr. Penelope Boston (National Cave and Karst Research Institute in Carlsbad and New Mexico Tech in Socorro) has recovered 36 strains of unique manganese-using bacteria unknown on the surface.

Additionally, antibiotic-producing actinomycete bacteria are found dotting many of the walls.

But the route that the explorers and scientists had first used was too hazardous for further trips and the BLM closed access in 2004 until a safer route could be found.

On June 30, 2007, a safer route to Snowy River was finally achieved, the culmination of several years of monumental digging efforts. In a stroke of great good fortune, this breakthrough by a team of dedicated cave volunteers - led by long-time Ft. Stanton volunteer John Corcoran - has come at the same time as another rare event: Snowy River is actually running with water once again!

"We believe the last occurrence of water in this river may have been about 150 years ago, as shown by Dr. Polyak's dating of the calcite," says Dr. Boston. "This means we are witnessing a once-in-a-century event and an unparalleled opportunity to study the hydrology and former climate of this region of New Mexico."

Snowy River Cave

Right: Snowy River

What is the significance of water running in this sparkling jewel of a mineral river? It means that cave and karst scientists like Dr. Lewis Land (National Center for Cave and Karst Research in Carlsbad, and New Mexico Bureau of Geology and Mineral Resources in Socorro) will be able to compare water chemistry and environmental tracers between Snowy River and water from surface streams and springs to determine what is the source and fate of the water in Snowy River.

"It is critical to understand the hydrology of such regions of our state because the quality and quantity of our precious water resources depends on such knowledge," Dr. Boston says. "And, the BLM will gain invaluable insight into how to protect and manage Ft. Stanton Cave and Snowy River and its greater catchment basin.

"Now that Snowy River can be safely reached by scientists and explorers, we can begin to tap the wealth of information about our previous climate history in New Mexico," Dr. Boston adds. "Cave decorations, like stalactites and stalagmites, and the amazing Snowy River calcite itself preserve geochemical traces of what our past climate was like as if we were reading a storybook. This insight is critical in helping us understand our present climate and predict what our statewide and global climate future may be in an era of anticipated changing world climate."

The discovery, exploration, scientific analysis, and management of Snowy River is a model example of how well very different partners can work together: a federal agency (BLM), many dedicated and knowledgeable cave volunteers over years of sustained effort, scientists at academic institutions (NMT, UNM), state institutions (NMBGMR), and a national cave and karst institute (NCKRI) have all come together to make this exciting find possible.

Finds like Snowy River can also play a major role in promoting education of our young people in science and other technical fields.

Andrew Grieco, the 16-year-old who was on the initial exploration trip, for example, has since gone on to complete his bachelor's of science degrees in both earth sciences and physics at New Mexico Tech (May 2007 graduate), with Dr. Boston as his advisor, and is now engaged in an internship at Los Alamos National Laboratory.

"The lure of the amazing underground environment that New Mexico possesses in so many parts of the state is an excellent tool for sparking the imagination of our young people to pursue scientific and technical careers, and Mr. Grieco has been an excellent example of this influence," Dr. Boston says.