Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Premier example

There are few places left in America that can sum up in a small, 4,000 acre tract an entire landscape. One of those places is in central Missouri, deep in the heart of the Ozark Mountains. Dominated by limestone and dolomite bluffs, springs, seeps, caves, oak-hickory woodlands and glades, the Ozarks represent in rather pristine condition (more than anywhere else in America) karst topography, and one small state park a couple hours south of Columbia so typifies karst topography that is being considered by the National Park Service as a National Natural Landmark. I'm hesitant to even mention the name of the park because too many people know about it already; the fragile landscape is being abused enough by the onslaught of hikers from St. Louis and Kansas City looking for a wilderness experience close to home.

Named after Kars, a region of Slovenia rich with limestone caves, karst topography is defined by the presence of limestone, sandstone and dolomite, underground rivers, sinkholes and caves...lots and lots of caves. Then Governor John Ashcroft officially desingnated us "the cave state" and as of last year, personalized license plates are available with a representation of a cave with bats flying out of its mouth.

The complex features of karst topography can be explored in a short three mile hike: begin at a spring that produces, on average, 48 million gallons of water a day. The recharge area for the spring stretches for over 60 miles; throw some used oil in an old farm pond in Lebanon, Missouri, and it will end up killing fish at the spring. Rocks can't filter impurities, and since the Ozarks are simply a rocky uplift with minimal soils, impurities ranging from atrazine to motor oil end up in Missouri's spring water.

The spring wasn't always gushing forth 48 million gallons of water a day in plain view. The exposed spring is actually part of an elaborate collapse of a cavern system that stretches for several miles, though in various stages of development. Part of the system is a large, natural rock bridge that spans roughly 500 feet. Natural bridges represent partial cave collapses--both sides of the bridge collapse, leaving a small stretch of rock as evidence that there was once, indeed, a cave. A stone's throw away from the natural bridge are three large caves, one of which was only discovered last year. Eventually, through erosive forces, the natural bridge, too, will collapse.

What's so astonishing about this area south of Columbia is that the average hiker, if so inclined, can trace the sequence of events in karst systems in a mere hour. Start at the spring, go under the natural bridge. Climb over the bridge to the highest peak of the park and you're on top of the mountain overlooking the huge chasm. The top of the mountain can collapse at any moment, exposing an elaborate cave system shaped by such powerful erosive forces that clearly peak the interest of millions of hikers every year.

1 comment:

Nathan said...

Specialists at KU confirm: Kras is the Slovenian term and place, while "karst" is the German variant of this word. Kras is a region in SW and littoral Slovenia extending to Istria, of limestone terrain with many caves and underground rivers. According to Slavic linguist Marc Greenberg, "The Slovene/Croatian word kras comes from a Latinized form carsus, which originates in a term from a pre-Latin Indo-European language--possibly 'Illyrian'. Cognate forms to that original form show up here and there in Europe, for example in France Gars; Ptolemy mentions a mountain named Kar(u)sadios oros."

-Nathan