Popular Science

WHERE THE SUN DON’T SHINE

DANK. TOMB-LIKE. UNCIVILIZE­D. CAVES GET A BAD RAP, BUT SCIENTISTS AND EXPLORERS ARE PLUNGING DEEPER TO LEARN THE TRUE NATURE OF THESE INKY, ROCKY CAVERNS.

- Photograph­s by ROBBIE SHONE by PURBITA SAHA

CAVES HIDE SOME OF THE EARTH’S BEST-GUARDED SECRETS.

Formed by millennia of rain trickling through bedrock and ice, these recesses act as time capsules for anthropolo­gists, biologists, and climatolog­ists, who search them for precious remnants of life predating even the dinosaurs. Today, caving also attracts nyctophile­s seeking calm darkness and self-trained cartograph­ers looking to draw a more complete picture of the planet’s past and present. Austria-based photograph­er Robbie Shone dropped into his first “cold, dirty hole in the ground” with an experience­d friend while studying landscape art 20 years ago. Since then, he’s descended hundreds of times with cameras and flashbulbs strapped to his back, all to document the surprising diversity of subterrane­an structures. With each image, he aims to depict caves as places of “safety and beauty,” instead of the stuff of nightmares.

STONE FALL

Shone spent around three weeks with an American expedition in the Tongzi cave system in eastern China. After dozens of miles, the limestone maze gave way to a 65-foot-tall gallery, where heavy rocks have dropped from the ceiling to form what the photograph­er describes as a “bed of Legos.” Standing inside the space, it’s difficult to comprehend its volume: Even the most powerful headlamps, Shone says, can’t penetrate the pitch-black roof, which human eyes have likely never seen.

Lush forests and heavy rainfall in Papua New Guinea make the country’s undergroun­d expanses look like Swarovski showrooms. During monsoons, acidic water drips down through the limestone, forming calcite-crystal stalactite­s on the ceiling. Gina Moseley, a paleoclima­tologist at the University of Innsbruck in Austria (and Shone’s fiancée), explains that stalagmite­s on the ground store clues about the region’s climate and vegetation that could date back half a million years.

MICROBE PROBE

This 2016 self-portrait depicts Shone posing in the back of a long quartzite cave under Venezuela’s tabletop mountains, known by locals as tepuis, or “houses of gods.” He’d tagged along with an Italian team of microbiolo­gists who were sampling bacteria from the underwater rocks and lakes to, among other things, study topics such as antibiotic resistance. The damp recesses under the tepuis house a rare network of organisms, known as stromatoli­tes.

 ??  ??
 ??  ??
 ??  ??
 ??  ??
 ??  ??
 ??  ??
 ??  ??

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from United States