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Entrance to the Škocjan Caves, Slovenia.
A karst landscape in Minerve, Hérault, France
The karst hills of The Burren on the west coast of Ireland

Karst topography is a geological formation shaped by the dissolution of a layer or layers of soluble bedrock, usually carbonate rock such as limestone or dolomite,[1] but has also been documented for weathering resistant rocks, such as quartzite, given the right conditions.[2]

Due to subterranean drainage, there may be very limited surface water, even in the absence of any rivers and lakes. Many karst regions display distinctive surface features, with cenotes, sinkholes or dolines being the most common. However, distinctive karst surface features may be completely absent where the soluble rock is mantled, such as by glacial debris, or confined by one or more superimposed non-soluble rock strata. Some karst regions include thousands of caves, although evidence of caves large enough for human exploration is not a required characteristic of karst.


Origin of the name

The international community has settled on karst, the German name for Kras, a region in Slovenia partially extending into Italy, where it is called "Carso" and where the first scientific research of a karst topography was made. The name has an Indo-European origin (from karra meaning "stone"),[3] and in antiquity it was called "Carusardius" in Latin. The Slovene form grast is attested since 1177, and the Croatian kras since 1230.[citation needed].


Karst lake (Doberdò del Lago, Italy) fed by an underground water source into a depression with no surface inlet or outlet
Doline in the causse de Sauveterre, Lozère, France.

Karst landforms are generally the result of mildly acidic water acting on weakly soluble bedrock such as limestone or dolostone. The mildly acidic water begins to dissolve the surface along fractures or bedding planes in the limestone bedrock. Over time, these fractures enlarge as the bedrock continues to dissolve. Openings in the rock increase in size, and an underground drainage system begins to develop, allowing more water to pass through the area, and accelerating the formation of underground karst features.[4]

Primary dissolution mechanism: carbonic acid

The carbonic acid that causes these features is formed as rain passes through the atmosphere picking up CO2, which dissolves in the water. Once the rain reaches the ground, it may pass through soil that can provide much more CO2 to form a weak carbonic acid solution, which dissolves calcium carbonate. The primary reaction sequence in limestone dissolution is the following:

H2O + CO2 → H2CO3
CaCO3 → Ca2+ + CO32–
CO32– + H2CO3 → 2 HCO3
CaCO3 + H2CO3 → Ca2+ + 2 HCO3

Secondary dissolution mechanism: sulfide oxidation

However, in particular and very rare conditions such as these encountered in the past in Lechuguilla Cave in New Mexico (and more recently in the Frasassi Caves in Italy), other mechanisms may also play a role. The oxidation of sulfides leading to the formation of sulfuric acid can also be one of the corrosion factors in karst formation. As O2-rich surface waters seep into deep anoxic karst systems it brings oxygen which reacts with sulfide present in the system (pyrite or H2S) to form sulfuric acid (H2SO4). Sulfuric acid then reacts with calcium carbonate causing an increased erosion within the limestone formation. This whole chain of reactions is shown below:

H2S + 2 O2 → H2SO4 (sulfide oxidation)
H2SO4 + 2 H2O → SO42– + 2 H3O+ (sulfuric acid dissociation)
CaCO3 + 2 H3O+ → Ca2+ + H2CO3 + 2 H2O (calcium carbonate dissolution)
CaCO3 + H2SO4 → CaSO4 + H2CO3 (global reaction leading to calcium sulfate)
CaSO4 + 2 H2O → CaSO4 · 2 H2O (hydration and gypsum formation)

This reaction chain forms gypsum.[5]


The karstification of a landscape may result in a variety of large- or small-scale features both on the surface and beneath. On exposed surfaces, small features may include flutes, runnels, clints and grikes, collectively called karren or lapiez. Medium-sized surface features may include sinkholes or cenotes (closed basins), vertical shafts, foibe (inverted funnel shaped sinkholes), disappearing streams, and reappearing springs. Large-scale features may include limestone pavements, poljes, and karst valleys. Mature karst landscapes, where more bedrock has been removed than remains, may result in karst towers, or haystack/eggbox landscapes. Beneath the surface, complex underground drainage systems (such as karst aquifers) and extensive caves and cavern systems may form.

Erosion along limestone shores, notably in the tropics, produces karst topography that includes a sharp makatea surface above the normal reach of the sea and undercuts that are mostly the result of biological activity or bioerosion at or a little above mean sea level. Some of the most dramatic of these formations can be seen in Thailand's Phangnga Bay and Halong Bay in Vietnam.

Calcium carbonate dissolved into water may precipitate out where the water discharges some of its dissolved carbon dioxide. Rivers which emerge from springs may produce tufa terraces, consisting of layers of calcite deposited over extended periods of time. In caves, a variety of features collectively called speleothems are formed by deposition of calcium carbonate and other dissolved minerals.


A karst spring in the Jura mountains near Ouhans in eastern France at the source of the river Loue

Farming in karst areas must take into account the lack of surface water. The soils may be fertile enough, and rainfall may be adequate, but rainwater quickly moves through the crevices into the ground, sometimes leaving the surface soil parched between rains.

A karst fenster is where an underground stream emerges onto the surface between layers of rock, cascades some feet, and then disappears back down, often into a sinkhole. Rivers in karst areas may disappear underground a number of times and spring up again in different places, usually under a different name (like Ljubljanica, the river of seven names). An example of this is the Popo Agie River in Fremont County, Wyoming. At a site simply named "The Sinks" in Sinks Canyon State Park, the river flows into a cave in a formation known as the Madison Limestone, and then rises again a half-mile down the canyon in a placid pool. A Turlough is a unique type of seasonal lake found in Irish karst areas which are formed through the annual welling-up of water from the underground water system.

Water supplies from wells in karst topography may be unsafe, as the water may have run unimpeded from a sinkhole in a cattle pasture, through a cave and to the well, bypassing the normal filtering that occurs in a porous aquifer. Karst formations are cavernous and therefore have high rates of permeability, resulting in reduced opportunity for contaminants to be filtered out.

Groundwater in karst areas is just as easily polluted as surface streams. Sinkholes have often been used as farmstead or community trash dumps. Overloaded or malfunctioning septic tanks in karst landscapes may dump raw sewage directly into underground channels.

The karst topography itself also poses difficulties for human inhabitants. Sinkholes can develop gradually as surface openings enlarge, but quite often progressive erosion is unseen and the roof of an underground cavern suddenly collapses. Such events have swallowed homes, cattle, cars, and farm machinery.[citation needed]

The Driftless Area National Wildlife Refuge in Iowa protects Discus macclintocki, a species of ice age snail surviving in air chilled by flowing over buried karst ice formations.


Pseudokarsts are similar in form or appearance to karst features, but are created by different mechanisms. Examples include lava caves and granite tors—for example, Labertouche Cave in Victoria, Australia and paleocollapse features. Arroyo Tapiado in Anza-Borrego Desert State Park has over two dozen mud caves in this desert area east of San Diego, California.

Notable karst areas

Historical studies and early theories

In 1689, Janez Vajkard Valvasor, a pioneer of study of karst in Slovenia and a fellow of the The Royal Society for Improving Natural Knowledge, London, introduced the word karst to European scholars, describing the phenomenon of underground flows of rivers.[citation needed]

In 1893, Jovan Cvijić in his Das Karstphänomen theorized holo-karst as the type found along the eastern Adriatic, and mero-karst imperfectly developed with some karst forms as the type of karst that is found in eastern Serbia. He claimed that most types of dolines, "the diagnostic karst landforms", were created by rock dissolution.[citation needed]

See also


  1. ^ "Glossary of Cave and Karst Terms". Speleogenesis.info. http://www.speleogenesis.info/glossary/. Retrieved 2009-05-04. 
  2. ^ Geomorphological Landscapes of the World.
  3. ^ Gams, I., Kras v Sloveniji — v prostoru in casu (Karst in Slovenia in space and time), 2003, ISBN 961-6500-46-5.
  4. ^ "What is Karst (and why is it important)?". Karst Waters Institute. http://www.karstwaters.org/kwitour/whatiskarst.htm. 
  5. ^ S. Galdenzi, M. Cocchioni, L. Morichetti, V. Amici, and S. Scuri; Sulfidic ground water chemistry in the Frasassi Cave, Italy. Journal of Cave and Karst Studies, V. 70, No. 2, p.94-107.

Further reading

External links