What can caves teach us about climate change?


Well-known member
It teaches us sump floppers to be extremely patient, as the wet winters over recent years don't seem to allow the good vis of the long freeze ups of yore any more.


Quite a lot judging by the quantity of research going on in caves regarding palaeoclimate both in the UK and elsewhere.
Indeed. They can provide an excellent record of all sorts of climate related data held in sediments and calcite.
It's amazing just how much CO2 levels have changed, for example, being lower now than throughout most of the history of life on Earth!


I would strongly recommend Ian Fairchild's and Andy Baker's book Speleothem Science: From Process to Past Environments (Blackwell, 2012). Though some of the detail completely blows my mind into fragments (I must try harder!), much of it is very clear and accessible to the non-specialist. The explanations of how cave and karst scientists are using speleothems as proxies for past climates and environments is wonderful. They can tell us more than other proxies (ice-cores, trees, etc) about global climate change as they are often much older and widespread. It is a great book, I return to it often for insights into cave processes and formations - these and all the sediments deposited in them are endlessly fascinating. Attached are a couple of snaps of cave sediments - the first was taken in Ireby II, the second in the high levels of the Clearwater System. I'd like to know more about the Ireby sediments and Andy Farrant (who was on the 2017 expedition to Clearwater) told us he thought these were sediments from a eruption of a long lost volcano.

I bought the book back in 2012 and have just checked and seen it on sale for £70! o_O

The study of sedimentary rocks in general tell us so much about rising and falling sea-levels - the Yoredale sequence of rocks above the Great Scar limestone in the Dales is a good example. These are obviously very old and distant environments though along with more recent caves and sedimentary deposits we can see the processes, stages and timing of these climate changes.

The study of carbon as a whole has illuminated my understanding of climate change - carbon cycles, carbonate factories, the carbon in the atmosphere, in the rain, in streams, in soils and peat, forests - and on down into the caves - already formed in carbon by carbon - and then filled in by carbon. There is so much to consider. The hard committed science is measuring all of this!

I'm no scientist but as a curious reader and caver their work has transformed my experience of caves, rivers and mountains - and climate.

You have posed a great question!


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Well-known member
I would very much appreciate being guided towards some of this research rather than just informed that it exists :)

A good start might be to look into the pioneering speleothem dating work done by Mel Gascoine and friends in the 1970s at a certain Dales show cave which you know particularly well. Mel was originally Lancaster based then moved on to McMaster in Canada, from where he continued his work for most of his career.

Or, if you send a PM to "professor warthog" on here, I'm sure he could give you a good (modern) overview.

Langcliffe might also have useful thoughts (and also memories of Mel's work).

grotty E

New member
I know a lot more about ice cores, but speleothems (formations) are pretty key in building up pictures of rapid climate change in the past.

They often contain small amounts of Uranium who's decay lets you date them a lot more precisely than ice cores who are mostly made of C, H & O etc. And speleothems and ice cores often respond to similar kinds of climate events to do with warming and rainfall so they let you figure out when and how fast they actually happened.

Tropical speleothems are some of the most important (the most famous one is from Hulu cave in China, but others from South America have also been very valuable) as their oxygen isotopes (which ultimately come from rainfall) can tell you about monsoon intensity.
Hulu is mostly talked about in relation to 'fast' millenium-scale climate shifts that happened in the last glaciation (Dansgaard-Oeschger Events & Heinrich Events) which dramatically shifted monsoon patterns which lead to huge shifts in tropical methane production which had its own climate impacts.
And while a certain temperature change in the middle of a glaciation won't neccesarily map on to future temperature changes today, it's still important to understand how the climate responds (especially given that sudden AMOC changes in the North Atlantic which are thought to be behind this shift are thought to become possible again if we warm past 2-3 degrees).

Also there's been some really interesting work in Siberian caves where the formations only grow when the permafrost has thawed (as any rainfall will just freeze if the ground's still frozen) so if you go and date when the formations started growing or paused growing, you can tell when permafrost thawed in that location in the past. And if you know what the global temperature was doing at that time you can start to figure out the temperature threshholds for permafrost thawing (which is thought to have dramatic effects on methane emmisions) based entirely off observations and not modelling which is very difficult to do.
And I think the Greenland expeditions from a few years ago that you can read about in Cave & Karst science had similar aims with telling when the ice did and didn't melt in far North Greenland, telling us more about how stable that giant ice sheet is.

There's also been some work on speleothems in Yucatán in Mexico which people look at to understand past rainfalls and droughts. And one of their main findings was a series of prolonged droughts that occured around the period of 'the collapse of the classical Maya civilisation' (I'm sure that's not the only thing that was going on with that, but it is another interesting piece to add to that archaeological picture).

These are all the ones I can think of off the top of my head but caves are really incredible for the study of past climate changes at least and there's a lot of work that people are doing to find more ways to use them to get more windows into how the climate system works.


Well-known member
I posted here a couple of months ago

Here are a few more interesting papers linked on Science Direct:


Well-known member
Talking about climate reminds me when cryogenic calcite was found in large amounts in our find in Reservoir Hole. It was Nick (OR) Chipchase who dug up the description Frozen Deep for the huge chamber we had found. I find it fascinating that the Frozen Deep was, in geological terms, a genuine ice cave of the sort seen in the Pyrenees or Iceland.


Well-known member
I bought the book back in 2012 and have just checked and seen it on sale for £70! o_O
Thank you! This sounds fantastic but unfortunately there's no way I can afford that - if any cavers here have a copy I could temporarily borrow that would be fantastic, I can arrange pick up through my partner who works at Inglesport. I'll have a look at the British Caving Library to see if they can help too


Well-known member
A good start might be to look into the pioneering speleothem dating work done by Mel Gascoine and friends in the 1970s at a certain Dales show cave which you know particularly well. Mel was originally Lancaster based then moved on to McMaster in Canada, from where he continued his work for most of his career.
Would love to find out more about this, where would be the best place to start? Or shall I just pick your brains next time I see you?


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If you ain’t listened to it yet, then this talk on radio 4. I’m not complaining of aches and pains, but I do seem to be listening to more and more radio 4!!! https://ukcaving.com/board/index.php?threads/gideon-henderson-interview-r4.30906/#post-378736

Here’s a link to the actual talk - https://www.bbc.co.uk/sounds/play/m001pmgn?partner=uk.co.bbc&origin=share-mobile

30mins that I found really insightful, and am clearly remembering them 7 months down the line, so some neurons must have liked what they heard.

Andy Farrant

Active member
What can caves teach us about climate change? The answer is a lot. This is mainly because caves preserve archives of climatic change in the sediments, speleothems, ice deposits and archaeology which are protected from surface weathering, degradation and erosion. And what's more, many of these archives can be precisely dated, particularly speleothems by various methods (U-series, palaeomag, radiocarbon etc). And as caves are pretty much distributed all across the globe (unlike ice cores), they are valuable repositories of data in areas where other types of records may be sparse. So next time you go down GB on Mendip, take a look at the sediment bank on the right just before the Bridge. You will see coarse gravel at the base, a layer of speleothem, more gravel which is capped by stalagmites on the top. The gravels represent cold phase deposits, with stalagmites being deposited in warmer periods. The middle spelethem layer has been dated to 52 ka, which corresponds to a warmer interstadial within the last Devensian glaciation, a warm phase which can also be seen in the Greenland ice cores. The stalagmites on top are all relatively recent, of Holocene (younger than c. 11 ka) age.

Franklin mentioned the sediments in upper levels of Clearwater cave in Mulu. These contain layers of weathered volcanic ash, which was deposited by a large eruption 189,000 years ago somewhere in the Phillipines, and washed into the caves. They are not preserved on the surface. Their age was constrained by dating speleothem above and below the deposit. You see them in many places throughout Clearwater. Documented here: Lundberg, J. and McFarlane, D.A., 2012. A significant middle Pleistocene tephra deposit preserved in the caves of Mulu, Borneo. Quaternary Research, 77(3), pp.335-343.