Conquering The Underground Everest
Very Interesting|September/October 2021
The Dark Star cave system in a remote corner of Uzbekistan might one day be crowned the ‘world’s deepest cave’. Hidden inside the subterranean labyrinth lie geological time capsules that hold the secret to Earth’s past and future climate…
Jheni Osman

“Oranges, reds, yellows… a kaleidoscope of colour. It was like walking in the Alps in autumn. Truly amazing.” Israeli geologist Boaz Langford is describing one of the vast caverns in Dark Star – a huge cave system tucked inside the BaisunTau mountain range in an isolated region of Uzbekistan. Langford was part of the international team of scientists and cavers who explored the system in 2014.

“In another branch there are frozen lakes; elsewhere, huge waterfalls. The variety of sights is incredible. Every area is different. Dark Star is like no other. Totally unusual. I’m a scientist, and not very religious, but there is something spiritual about that place.”

Political instability and its remote location have kept the depths of Dark Star (named after a 1974 sci-fi comedy film) hidden from human eyes. But in 1990, a British team managed to reach one of the entrances, and so exploration of this dark underworld began. Around 17km of passages, along with additional entrances, have since been discovered, but all of the openings sit halfway up a 200m-high limestone cliff. And just getting to the base camp at its foot is a long and treacherous journey. Langford and his colleagues met the rest of the expedition team in the Uzbek capital Tashkent. Loading all their equipment onto a bus, they drove 160km along part of the ancient Silk Road towards Samarqand, before switching to a six-wheeled truck and heading south across arid plains in the direction of the Baisun district on the Afghan border. At the foot of the Baisun-Tau mountain range, they ditched the truck and continued on foot for two days, with donkeys lugging their gear.

“The path was so treacherous that one of the donkeys fell down a cliff and died,” says Langford. “One of the team had to climb down to the poor beast to recover our equipment.” Eventually, the team reached a point where it was too tricky for the donkeys to continue, so they hauled the kit the rest of the way to base camp themselves. From the base camp, it’s still a two-hour hike followed by a 100m rope climb to reach the jaws of Dark Star.

Climate clock

Why are scientists bothering to traipse for days across inhospitable terrain to reach a remote corner of Uzbekistan? What could possibly be lying in the depths of the cave to make all this hardship worthwhile?

The answer: an accurate climate clock.

Information about Earth’s past and future climate is captured in cave mineral deposits. These are made from flowing or dripping water laden with minerals – calcite, aragonite and gypsum. Over time, the minerals build up to create rock formations called stalagmites and stalactites.

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