July 11, 2017, LINDAU (GERMANY): Noted Italian geologist and cave explorer Francesco Sauro, who has led successful expeditions to one of the world’s oldest cave systems in Venezuela’s Tepui mountains, is gearing up to explore the “lost world” in India’s Meghalaya, which harbours some of the longest and deepest cave systems in the world.
Sauro, a speleologist, who has close to 20 years of caving experience, has participated in studying these hidden environments around the world, of which six expeditions have been to the Tepuis, the table top mountains of South America. Speleology is the scientific study of caves.
The 2014 Rolex Young Laureate recipient in exploration for his “exploration of ancient quartzite caves in the table-top mountains of South America”, now hopes to delve into the magnificent cave systems of Meghalaya, home to Krem Liat Prah, the longest natural cave in India. Most of them are limestone and sandstone caves.
“There were recent discoveries of cave systems in mid-Meghalaya. I will be going there in February to join the expedition team. This is part of the multinational ‘Caving in the Abode of the Clouds’ project to systematically explore the caves of Meghalaya. By studying them we can shed light on the evolution of life and the paleoclimate,” Sauro, one of the most well-known explorers of his generation, told IANS in an interview on the sidelines of the 67th Lindau Nobel Laureates Meeting.
He said these caves or “dark continents” form in Karstic regions and they are one of the most ancient and common features.
The 33-year-old cave explorer’s hallmark is multi-disciplinary research where chemists, microbiologists, biologists and other experts contribute to dissecting the samples and findings in Karst caves.
Karst is a special type of landscape that is formed by the dissolution of soluble rocks, including limestone and dolomite, and the terrain is usually characterised by barren, rocky ground, caves, sinkholes, underground rivers, and the absence of surface streams and lakes.
From 1992 till March 2015, more than 400 km of cave passages have been surveyed in Meghalaya, pinpointing whereabouts of at least 1,500 caves and cave locations.
“Since the time was much longer (formation and existence) what you can find inside in terms of evolution, minerals and other resources is extraordinary. It is like a blueprint or snapshot of what happened millions of years ago. So if we discover features which are common to Meghalaya and the Venezuelan cave systems, and same features in other parts of the world, then we can expand the search,” Sauro explained.
Likening these caves to a USB storage device, Sauro said “the more ancient it is the more records it contains”.
“Understanding paleoclimate is crucial to us. If you know how it was working in that age then we can understand what is going on now in terms of climate. We are also looking at evolution of bacterial species because this could have implications for antibiotic resistance, drug development, etc.,” he said, emphasising on tapping heavily into local talents for expeditions.
“Karstic regions cover almost 20 percent of the continents’ surface, and we know actually that speleologists in the last 50 years have explored roughly 30,000 kilometres of cave passages around the world, which is a big number,” he says.
“But geologists have estimated that what is still missing, to be discovered and mapped, is something around 10 million km. That means that for each metre of a cave that we already know, that we have explored, there are still some tens of kilometres of undiscovered passages,” he noted.
Though he said one will never be able to explore this endless continent completely, this is just the beginning of scientific exploration of caves.
For example, on one Tepui expedition, Sauro and his team (including Italian exploration association La Venta) discovered a new mineral, rossiantonite, as well as other rare silica and sulphate formations. Additional finds include a blind cat fish trapped in an underground river, for thousands of years, which could reveal a close relationship to some African species.
Sauro, who started caving as a 13-year-old in northern Italy, also leads a training programme for European Space Agency astronauts.
“There is a big future for cave research as this is just the beginning. It is the same for oceans and glaciers — difficult environments that have not been well studied. There is fear of the unknown and the lost world, but fear is what keeps you going and keeps you alive,” he added.
Picture Courtesy: Mike Burkey