What are Stalactites and Stalagmites?
- Stalactites and stalagmites are wonderful examples of nature’s sculpturing. Together, they are also known as ‘speleothems’.
- Speleothems are exotic cave features created by the deposition of minerals and are also referred to as cave formations or decorations.
- The word ‘speleothem’ owes its origin to two Greek words ‘spelaion’ meaning ‘cave’ and ‘thema’ meaning ‘deposit’.
How are Stalactites and Stalagmites formed?
Stalactites and stalagmites are formed because of the rainwater that seeps through the caves over a period of time. As water drips through the ceiling of a limestone cave, the water droplets leave small bits of mineral behind, forming stone columns usually shaped like an ice cream cone. The stalactites grow downwards from the ceilings or walls of the caverns.
The stalactites may be icicle-shaped, curtain-shaped, or straw shaped. Stalagmites grow upwards from the cave floor and can be cone-shaped, or look like a stack of saucers.
Sometimes growing stalactites and stalagmites meet each other to form a continuous column from floor to ceiling.
If these similar sounding words seem confusing to you, we will tell you an easy way to remember which is which: stalactites have a ‘c’ that stands for ‘ceiling’ and stalagmites have a ‘g’ that stands for ‘ground’.
Stalactites and stalagmites grow at a very slow rate, approximately around one inch per year.
The rate of growth of speleothems depends on various factors. Two important factors are the temperature outside and the amount of rainfall in the region.
The shape of speleothems is determined by the way the acidic water enters the cave—by dripping, splashing or seeping. The colour of speleothems is determined by the mineral content. Pure calcite is white and often colourless. Iron and other minerals, as well as acids from ground vegetation, combine with calcite crystals to form different hues of red, black and orange colours.
You can find speleothems in abundance in the old caves of California and France.
In India, stalactites and stalagmites are found in the Araku valley caves in Andhra Pradesh and some old caves of Meghalaya.
Due to the extremely slow and unique process of their formation, stalactites and stalagmites are regarded as objects of natural heritage and are protected by law in most of the countries. Collection, buying and selling of stalactites and stalagmites is also prohibited.
Interesting Facts about Stalactites and Stalagmites
- The largest stalactite in the world is situated in a cave in County Clare, Ireland; it is more than 23 feet long! The largest stalagmite is believed to be located a cave near Lozère in southern France. It measures over 95 feet in length and is further growing.
- Just like your socks, stalactites and stalagmites tend to exist in pairs.
For more interesting Geography articles and videos, visit our Geography for Kids category.