A hollow victory: Israel claims title of world’s largest salt cave from Iran
search

A hollow victory: Israel claims title of world’s largest salt cave from Iran

Malcham salt cave near Dead Sea finally measured at over 10 km, beating Iran’s 3N Cave; cavers downplay politics of find, saying this was an act of international cooperation

  • A massive stalactite formation in the Malcham Cave near the Dead Sea on March 22, 2019. (courtesy Ruslan Paul/Hebrew Unviersity)
    A massive stalactite formation in the Malcham Cave near the Dead Sea on March 22, 2019. (courtesy Ruslan Paul/Hebrew Unviersity)
  • Malcham Cave lead explorers from left to right Efi Cohen, Yoav Negev, Professor Amos Frumkin, and Boaz Langford outside of the main entrance to the cave on March 22, 2019 near the Dead Sea. (courtesy Anton Chikishev/Hebrew Unviersity)
    Malcham Cave lead explorers from left to right Efi Cohen, Yoav Negev, Professor Amos Frumkin, and Boaz Langford outside of the main entrance to the cave on March 22, 2019 near the Dead Sea. (courtesy Anton Chikishev/Hebrew Unviersity)
  • Salt crystals in the Malcham Cave, the longest salt cave in the world, on March 22, 2019 near the Dead Sea. (courtesy Anton Chikishev/Hebrew Unviersity)
    Salt crystals in the Malcham Cave, the longest salt cave in the world, on March 22, 2019 near the Dead Sea. (courtesy Anton Chikishev/Hebrew Unviersity)
  • A researcher squeezes through a narrow opening in the Malcham Cave on March 22, 2019, near the Dead Sea. (courtesy Anton Chikishev/Hebrew Unviersity)
    A researcher squeezes through a narrow opening in the Malcham Cave on March 22, 2019, near the Dead Sea. (courtesy Anton Chikishev/Hebrew Unviersity)
  • A close-up of a salt stalactite in the Malcham Cave, the longest salt cave in the world, on March 27, 2019. (Johanna Chisholm/Times of Israel)
    A close-up of a salt stalactite in the Malcham Cave, the longest salt cave in the world, on March 27, 2019. (Johanna Chisholm/Times of Israel)
  • Active salt stalactites in the Malcham Cave on March 27, 2019. (Johanna Chisholm/Times of Israel)
    Active salt stalactites in the Malcham Cave on March 27, 2019. (Johanna Chisholm/Times of Israel)
  • Efi Cohen, part of the Hebrew Univeristy’s Cave Research Center, atop a rock in a room in the Malcham Cave named 'The Wedding Hall' because of the stunning stalactites, on March 27, 2019 near the Dead Sea. (Johanna Chisholm/Times of Israel)
    Efi Cohen, part of the Hebrew Univeristy’s Cave Research Center, atop a rock in a room in the Malcham Cave named 'The Wedding Hall' because of the stunning stalactites, on March 27, 2019 near the Dead Sea. (Johanna Chisholm/Times of Israel)
  • Salt stalagtites hanging from the ceiling in the Malcham Cave, the longest salt cave in the world, on March 28, 2019 (Johanna Chisholm/Times of Israel)
    Salt stalagtites hanging from the ceiling in the Malcham Cave, the longest salt cave in the world, on March 28, 2019 (Johanna Chisholm/Times of Israel)
  • The main entrance to the Malcham Salt Cave, the longest salt cave in the world, located near the southern Dead Sea, on March 27, 2019. (Johanna Chisholm/Times of Israel)
    The main entrance to the Malcham Salt Cave, the longest salt cave in the world, located near the southern Dead Sea, on March 27, 2019. (Johanna Chisholm/Times of Israel)
  • One of the vertical openings that allows cavers to rappel down into the Malcham cave system from the top of Mount Sodom near the southern Dead Sea, pictured on March 22, 2019. (courtesy Anton Chikishev/Hebrew Unviersity)
    One of the vertical openings that allows cavers to rappel down into the Malcham cave system from the top of Mount Sodom near the southern Dead Sea, pictured on March 22, 2019. (courtesy Anton Chikishev/Hebrew Unviersity)

Israel snatched the title of world’s longest salt cave from Iran after a group of 80 international spelunkers hailing from nine countries successfully mapped the Malcham cave in the southern Dead Sea Region.

The cave, which wends its way underneath the 11 kilometer (7 mile)-long massive block of salt known as Mount Sodom, clocks in at over 10 kilometers (6.2 miles). Iran’s 3N Cave, which previously held the title for world’s largest salt cave, is about 6.5 kilometers (4 miles).

Professor Amos Frumkin, the director of Hebrew University’s Cave Research Center, first discovered the Malcham Cave in the 1980s. Using rudimentary methods to map the length of the cave, including unspooling string behind the cavers, they estimated the Malcham cave was around five kilometers long.

In 2006, a group of European and Iranian cavers announced that they had successfully mapped Iran’s 3N Cave, which stretched for 6.5 kilometers, bringing the salt cave crown to the Iranians. 3N stands for “Three Nudes” or “Cave of Three Naked Men” though cavers can only guess where the name comes from.

“The fact that we broke the Iranian record is not a political thing,” said Yoav Negev, the chairman of the Israel Cave Explorers Club. “We know this area is unexplored, and we want to explore it. The fact that we broke the record is only for the headline. We don’t want it to impact our relationship with Iranian cavers. We see it as good motivation for both countries.”

Negev said the Israeli and Iranian cavers are in frequent touch via Facebook, and meet at international caving conferences. “If this kind of competition is what will cause cavers to go explore and get more data, it’s a win-win situation,” Negev added. “People like breaking records. But people who do this work are motivated by curiosity and a sense of adventure.”

The Malcham salt cave formed by winter floodwater seeping into cracks in the cap rock, or solid rock exterior that covers Mount Sodom. This floodwater seeps into the salt rock and dissolves it, carving out an underground river as it flows through the solid block of salt to the Dead Sea. When the water drains, an empty cave is left in its path.

Salt caves are unique, dynamic caves that only form under special conditions, especially in desert areas with large salt stones formed by evaporating seawater and sediment. Chile’s Atacama Desert, Iran’s Qeshm Island and Israel’s Dead Sea area are the three most well-known areas with salt caves, though they are also found in Jordan, Egypt, Pakistan, and Poland, among other places.

A massive stalactite formation in the Malcham Cave near the Dead Sea on March 22, 2019. (courtesy Ruslan Paul/Hebrew Unviersity)

The Malcham salt cave is a virtual infant, according to geologists. Though salt caves are hard to date because there are few minerals that can be used for carbon dating, scientists estimate that the salt cave is around 7,000 years old. This estimate is based on organic matter, including branches, that wash through the cave during the winter storms and can be carbon dated.

Limestone caves, in contrast, take millions of years to form, and stalactites hanging from the ceiling are at least hundreds of years old. The Malcham cave’s stunning stalactites form so quickly they can grow as much as half a meter (1.5 feet) per year.

Since Frumkin first mapped the cave in 1987, cave mapping tools have grown in accuracy and portability. Scientists now use laser to measure each nook and cranny of the cave. The laser measuring device is instantaneously uploaded to a tablet that compiles all of the team’s measurements, providing the most accurate overview of the cave system available.

A close-up of a salt stalactite in the Malcham Cave, the longest salt cave in the world, on March 27, 2019. (Johanna Chisholm/Times of Israel)

Exploring the cave was a multi-national effort. Antoniya Vlaykova, the chair of Bulgaria’s Sofia Caving Club & Speleo School, a 90-year-old organization which has a rich history of cave exploration in Bulgaria, got in touch with Negev to talk about possible collaborations, and remapping the Malcham Cave quickly rose to the top of their list. Cave mapping is long, tedious work that requires attention to detail and clear organization of all the collected data.

Negev said, due to the sheer lack of  manpower, he knew that the Israeli cavers wouldn’t be able to map the entire cave on their own. By partnering with a European group, they were able to muster up a group of 80 volunteers for two expeditions, in 2018 and 2019.

A researcher squeezes through a narrow opening in the Malcham Cave on March 22, 2019, near the Dead Sea. (courtesy Anton Chikishev/Hebrew Unviersity)

“When one caver meets another caver, it is like an instant match,” Negev said. “The Malcham Cave is a one of a kind expedition that demonstrated the power of international caving delegations coming together to achieve something remarkable. The fact that we came away with a new world record is icing on the cake.”

There are about 150 known caves in the Mount Sodom area, though most are tiny and only the Malcham Cave system stretches for kilometers underground.

The Malcham cave is made of almost 100% pure table salt, or NaCl. Spelunkers with an adventurous palate can lick their way through the galleries in the cave, where crystallized salt hangs from the ceiling in delicate white stalactites. Over thousands of years, the water has carved out a three-dimensional maze, with boulders the size of bulldozers tossed every which way. At times, the rock formations force spelunkers to crawl forward on their stomachs, at times opening up into rooms the size of a small cathedral.

Salt stalagtites hanging from the ceiling in the Malcham Cave, the longest salt cave in the world, on March 28, 2019 (Johanna Chisholm/Times of Israel)

The cavers named galleries after rock formations, including Moses’s Tablets, for a room with two massive salt stones that look like the tablets of the Ten Commandments, and the Wedding Hall, a room filled with white stalactites clinging to the ceiling like ribbons of lace. Although dust and dirt enters the caves with the winter floods, they are covered with a dusting of white salt from the evaporated water that sparkles like snow in the glint of a headlamp.

Only 1% of the world’s salt reserves is found on the surface, explained Boaz Langford, a member of Hebrew University’s Cave Research Center and the head of the 2019 Malcham Cave Mapping Expedition. The rest of the world’s salt is buried deep underground, like Mount Sodom’s salt rock. Although the salt rocks look solid, they are slowly being pushed upwards by the meeting of the tectonic plates. The rocks are growing upwards, a bit like pushing toothpaste out of a tube, and Mount Sodom is rising at a rate of about 2 centimeters (0.8 inches) per year.

The cave is changing on a yearly basis as well. The cave floods once or twice a year, and each new flood carves out new features. Frumkin told the researchers that during particularly strong flooding, the water can dissolve up to 10 cm (4 inches) of salt rock in a 24 hour period.

Salt crystals in the Malcham Cave, the longest salt cave in the world, on March 22, 2019 near the Dead Sea. (courtesy Anton Chikishev/Hebrew Unviersity)

This means that the Malcham cave will continue to expand each year with floods. There are connections to new rooms and caves that didn’t exist when Frumkin first started exploring the cave system in the 1980s, because water has worn its way through cracks, expanding them to be large enough for humans to squeeze through.

The next Malcham expedition, planned for 2020, will explore the outer limits of the cave, like the Sandwich Room, which Langford said is so narrow it feels like you are being squeezed between two pieces of bread. At some points, it is so narrow that the cavers can’t even turn their head from side to side.

Malcham Cave lead explorers from left to right Efi Cohen, Yoav Negev, Professor Amos Frumkin, and Boaz Langford outside of the main entrance to the cave on March 22, 2019 near the Dead Sea. (courtesy Anton Chikishev/Hebrew Unviersity)

While the cave is not closed to the public, it is complicated and dangerous for people to go in without professional guides. The caves are confusing and winding, with multiple ways to climb up and down as well as horizontally. Just a few meters from the entrance, visitors are plunged into darkness so thick and heavy that it can be disorienting. Negev encourages anyone interested in trying out caving, at the Malcham Cave or others, to get in touch with the Israel Cave Explorers Club and join one of their trips.

“Caving needs a lot of curiosity,” said Efi Cohen, part of the Hebrew University’s Cave Research Center. “It’s like stepping into a new world. This is a place where not many people step inside. And it’s three dimensional, you go up and down, not just side to side, it’s like being in space as you try to find ways to go through the cave to get to other sections.”

Efi Cohen, part of the Hebrew Univeristy’s Cave Research Center, atop a rock in a room in the Malcham Cave named ‘The Wedding Hall’ because of the stunning stalactites, on March 27, 2019 near the Dead Sea. (Johanna Chisholm/Times of Israel)

Mapping the cave was a lot of hard work, said Cohen. Cavers spent long days, upwards of 10 hours underground. They completed the mapping in two 10-day expeditions, sleeping in a temporary camp near the entrance. After ten days spent underground, it was hard to mentally prepare themselves to go back in. “People were begging us to go look at trees for a while, they couldn’t handle any more salt,” said Cohen.

“But it’s the curiosity that keeps you going,” he said. “I say to myself, I’m in such a delicate place, I have a responsibility to carry out this research and pass along this knowledge.”

read more:
comments