Hydrogeology students had a chance to explore parts of world's longest cave system recently.
Dr. Ovidiu Frantescu, director of Pitt-Bradford's petroleum technology program, arranged for students in his Hydrogeology class to visit Mammoth Cave National Park in Kentucky, where they took a tour not offered to tourists and met with a National Park Service hydrogeologist.
As the name implies, Mammoth Cave is the longest known cave system in the world with more than 400 miles of mapped passageways. It is so large that new portions are discovered every year.
Students camped in the park and explored the above-ground features of the cave system, including giant sinkholes where water has eaten through limestone at the surface and the earth has given way. Those holes will someday become part of the cave, Frantescu explained.
Students also had a chance to meet with a hydrogeologist, who studies water underground. Because the cave is so large, it runs for miles underground and under private property. The hydrogeologist monitors aboveground spills and how they seep into the caves below and whether they affect the cave ecology.
After visiting public areas of the cave and seeing features like stalagmites and stalactites, Frantescu arranged for students to take a tour offered only to educational and scientific groups. The students donned headlights and carried flashlights to make their way through the absolute darkness, where they explored underground rivers and found blind cave creatures.
Having never been exposed to light, the creatures were not only blind, but also an unpigmented white, and included blind fish and crayfish, “ghost spiders” and what student Sabrina Crawford called “creepy crickets.”
Joe Nagel, an engineering and energy science and technology student from Lockport, N.Y., said, “It was really, really dark and really, really quiet.”
Sean DeFazio, who is also an engineering and energy science and technology student, from Scranton, appreciated the extended tour. “You wouldn't be able to see half of what we saw,” he said. Parts of the cave were shallow, requiring students to crawl.
In other parts, the students looked out on caverns below from underground cliffs. Sabrina Crawford, a petroleum technology and environmental studies student from Pleasantville, said she had to kneel due to her fear of heights.
For her twin sister Sandra Crawford, also a petroleum technology and environmental studies student, the trip got her to thinking about working for the National Park Service. “Pictures don't do it justice,” she said of the cave. “People who work in the park get to see that come to life all of the time.”