The history of American theories of cave origin
Published:January 01, 1985
In 1930, William Morris Davis published “Origin of Limestone Caverns” in the GSA Bulletin, initiating an episode of mistaken interpretation and resistance to field evidence almost unique in American geology. Davis proposed a two-cycle, deep-circulation theory of cave genesis by phreatic solution. J Harlan Bretz made heroic efforts to defend the theory, but geologic facts show it to be mostly wrong.
Davis ignored European literature, particularly the work of Alfred Grand and Jovan Cvijić whose empirical studies demonstrate that many caves are formed by solutional and mechanical action near and above the water table. Davis was misled by his lack of geochemistry and by fanciful maps of Mammoth Cave that show a labyrinth rather than the actual modified dendritic pattern of passages.
Among others, Claude A. Malott and James H. Gardner presented theories that displaced Davis' phreatic theory. In particular, Allyn C. Swinnerton developed a theory of temperate zone cave formation by flow along a seasonally fluctuating water table that is best supported by geologic evidence today. Recent work by Franz-Dieter Miotke, Arthur N. Palmer, and others relates episodes of cave formation to Pleistocene glacial periods.
Geochemical work initiated by Clifford A. Kaye and others caused a revolution in cave studies, and these data integrated with geologic, geomorphic, and hydrologic details by Derek C. Ford, Ralph O. Ewers, and others have led to sophisticated models of cave origin adaptable to all situations.
Some caves are formed by deep phreatic solution, although Carol A. Hill argues that in Carlsbad Caverns the active agent was sulfuric, not carbonic acid. Davis' prestige was so great, however, that his incorrect hypothetical model was an obstacle to the understanding of cave origin, and remains so today because of its continued uncritical incorporation in some elementary texts.
Figures & Tables
Geologists and Ideas
An unusually coherent, well-written volume. Prepared for DNAG by the History of Geology Division of GSA. Spotlights events, ideas, and people, and sheds light on the history of North American geology as a whole. With its many intellectual jewels on the evolution of scientific concepts, this book will provide many happy hours of entertainment and instruction for anyone interested in the history of science, especially that of the earth sciences. Thirty-four papers are organized into four categories: (1) The Evolution of Significant Ideas; (2) Contributions of Individuals; (3) Contributions of Organized Groups; and (4) Application of Significant Ideas. Excellent as a course-book or for additional reading for classes related to the history of geology or general science.