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Modern scientific study of karst phenomena came into being during the 90 years before the Geological Society of America was founded in 1888. It began with broad acceptance of the uniformitarian principle (1800s), basic understanding of processes of carbonate and sulfate rock dissolution and precipitation (1820s), and the equations of Hagen, Poiseuille, and Darcy for groundwater flow in porous, fractured, and soluble media (1840–1856). The Dalmation descriptive name “karst” (meaning “stony ground”), adopted by regional surveyors and travelers, came into general use in the 1850s also. The first U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) report on hydrogeology by Chamberlin in 1885 was one of many early texts that stressed the importance of conduit flow in limestone areas.

The 50 years following 1888 were dominated by studies in the “classical” karst region of western Slovenia, including definition of the principal types of surface landforms and proposals for their development within cycles of erosion, two sharply contrasted models for storage and flow in limestone aquifers, and promotion of a theory that accessible caves formed chiefly in the vadose zone. Following publication of a USGS report on the major springs in the nation in 1927, American scientists entered the debates in force, proposing that caves should develop primarily below the water table, along it, or create it; they also emphasized the importance of soil CO2 in boosting rates of solution in carbonate rocks. Russian investigators established the principles of mixing corrosion.

The pace of development throughout karst studies accelerated after the Second World War. In the later 1940s and 1950s, the formative studies of solution kinetics began, while improvements in methods of measuring solute concentrations set the stage for global rate models to be developed in succeeding decades. Spatial quantitative analysis came to dominate study of surface landforms, particularly sinkhole distribution patterns. The confusion that had arisen regarding the development of meteoric water (epigene) caves was resolved with a general model emphasizing the controlling roles of lithology and geologic structure: Increasingly, it was recognized that these two variables also explained many of the differences observed between karst aquifers and landform assemblages in different geographical areas. Opening of China to western scholars after 1980 gave access to the astonishing karst lands in the south of that country.

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