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Stalactites vs Stalagmites: What is the Difference?

Stalactites vs Stalagmites: What is the Difference?

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I am sure every grade schooler knows the difference between stalactites vs stalagmites, after all: Stalactites hold tight to the ceiling while stalagmites might reach up to the ceiling.

Stalactites vs Stalagmites

When it comes to caves, there are many fun formations and features involved, which makes it no surprise that so many people are fascinated by them. Caves are formed in different ways, and many are underground, while others are formed in rocks seated on the earth’s surface.

Stalactites vs Stalagmites

The most easily identifiable formations, when it comes to caves, are stalactites and stalagmites. So, we are going to look at what these are and how they come about in caves.

It is all in a name

Stalactites are known as the mineral formations which clings to the top of the cave. The term stalactite means “to drip,” as many we come across often seem to “pause” in mid-air, even though it is connected to a base. On the flip side, Stalagmites are the opposite of stalactites as they are found on the caves’ flooring. The term means droppings, which are formations from minerals that fall from the ceiling of the cave.

Understanding Stalactites and Stalagmites

Stalactites are generally formed from many things such as minerals, sand, mud, lava, and even amberat, which is the crystallized urine of pack rats.

Eesh, right?

In most cases, the material formed to make stalactite is soluble minerals. Stalagmites are the drippings of these minerals that fall and steadily grow on the cave’s ground. Stalagmites grow rather slowly in natural caves, while in artificial tunnels and caverns, they tend to grow quite fast.

As for stalactites, the fastest-growing ones are the soda straw types. Initially, water flowing from the roof of the caves mixed with various elements tends to harden over time due to the atmospheric changes. Stalactites often meet as well and form in a “drape-like” or “curtain-like” pattern.

Understanding Stalactites and Stalagmites

The drippings that form the stalagmites generally are from those dripping stalactites. Those stalagmites form in different shapes and are made from different materials and mineral-like matters. Stalagmites are called different names such as… 

  • Button Stalagmite – These are formed when the drippings are small, flat, and/or round.
  • Pile-of-Plates Stalagmite – These are formed when stalagmites highly resemble piled-up plates with lots of broken borders.
  • Mushroom Stalagmites – These are formed in the shape of a mushroom and mostly consist of mud.
  • Lily Pad Stalagmites – These stalagmites are shaped in lily pads normally seen on ponds and lakes.  
Why Do the Stalactites Have Pointed Tips While the Stalagmites Usually Do Not?

There comes a time when a stalactite and stalagmite meet and that is referred to as a column. Many of these formations are made up of calcite, aragonite, and gypsum. Research shows that up to 54 other minerals are involved in the process of forming these cave features!

In some caves that are linked to volcanoes, you may come in contact with what are called lava stalactites and stalagmites. With lava stalactites and stalagmites, secondary minerals are not involved as the main material is dripping lava which cools over time.

When it comes to most regions (if not all), touching or tearing apart, stalactites and stalagmites are generally not allowed. Seeing it takes millions of years of form, once altered, it will not repair or recover in any human existing years. As such, mining, collection, or selling of these formations are illegal in many countries.

Why Are Baby Stalactites Called Soda Straws?

When stalactites are formed, the process generally starts through a process that looks similar to a juice straw. This is mainly called a speleothem and is a hollow mineral tube. When water drips through the rocks in the roof of caves, it forms these soda straws.

Cave Soda Straws And How They Are Formed For those fascinated with caves, we are sure you have come in contact with the term cave straws. They are a speleothem that is formed in the shape of a hollow mineral cylindrical tube. Many people also refer to them as tubular stalactites. Soda straws generally grow in areas where water tends to seep through the rocks' cracks, mainly in the ceiling of the caves. In most cases, soda straws don't really grow more than a few millimeters per year, with an average one-tenth of a millimeter per year. Interestingly, soda straws have the ability to become a stalactite once the hole at the bottom of the "staw" is blocked. Also, if water starts to flow outside of the tube, it has the potential of becoming a stalactite. But did you all know that soda straws can grow outside of a cave environment? Well, they do! Once the concrete area is exposed to different conditions like weather and water exposure, it will grow and even faster than those grown in a cave. According to research, soda straws are known as some of the earliest growth of stalactites. Most are elongated and have the same diameter as the water droplets used to form them. A lot of the drops do hesitate to fall from the tip of the straw, which means it loses some level of carbon dioxide due to the atmospheric conditions that influence it. As it turns out, some of the calcium carbonates are held back in the solution that runs in liquid form. The calcium carbonate that remains slowly makes its way down the tubular straw down to the tip - yeah, it generally has a pointy end like teeth. How Soda Straws Grow Many soda straws tend to grow in a deflected manner as the straws sometimes grow in favor of the windward side in which air currents are driven. In addition, whichever direction water flows in the cave, it happens to sometimes grow in that direction as well. Evaporation is also a powerful factor that contributes to them growing in this manner. While taking a tour of a cave, you may notice one of the most common things about soda straws...they grow in large numbers together. With soda straws, you may notice some grow up to intriguing lengths - as much as 30 feet long in some cases. The longest single cave soda straw measures up 9.13 meters long and is found in Wonder Cave, Gunung Mulu, Malaysia. As for groups of cave soda straws, the longest batch can be found in an unnamed cave in Mexico, and they measure up to 9.03 meters, with some additional ones close by measuring up to 8 meters. When it comes to some of these cave formations, one has to be careful how they traverse the area as they tend to be as soft and delicate as a literal soda straw. If not careful, they can be damaged by helmets or other tools while moving through. Just as much as our habitats need to be preserved, the cave environment is the same. How Cave Soda Straws Are Formed It is really fascinating how nature works wonders sometimes, and looking at caves, we can see why. Just imagine going through a cave and see something as similar as a feature you use in everyday life. We are sure you would be eager to find out more about it and what purpose they serve. Cave soda straws are among that group. It is not too difficult to see why they are given that name as they bear similar features as the object itself. But, how exactly are they formed? These tubular objects are created when calcium carbonate or calcium sulfate gets dissolved in water and forms a dripping solution. The route the dripping takes leaves deposits over time until the straws are formed. When water seeps through the cracks in the walls, it mixes with the minerals that latch onto the tip of the tube. The mineral that is mixed tends to harden over time, and as the process repeats itself, more and more minerals get lodged at the tip. With this process, the straws become stalactites, and wherever the water drips after depositing, the minerals at the tip of the straws become stalagmites. There are many cave formations, but soda straws are among the most delicate speleothems in existence. Much like helictites, soda straws can easily be damaged if touched too hard - crushed or broken. Due to this reality, in most of the caves that grant open access to cave enthusiasts and spelunkers, soda straws are not always reachable. Take, for instance, Kartchner Caverns in southern Arizona. Since its discovery in 1974, they have put extra plans to secure their environs even though they have heavy traffic daily. Fun Fact: Straws Growing Outside A Cave In addition to cave environments, straws can grow below human-made structures, which generally grow faster than those in a cave. Instead of soda straws, they are called calthemites as their components are made up of concrete, mortar, lime, and other calcareous materials. These "outdoor straws" are recorded to grow up to 2 mm per day, whereas, in the cave, this measurement is a year's worth. Cave soda straws consist of lots of minerals vital to the cave environments and protected at all costs. Cave life can be fun and exciting, and there are endless features to learn about. So, the next time you happen to take a cave tour and see these slender formations, you will know exactly what they are and how they are formed.

At the “baby stage,” these soda straws are quite delicate and should not be altered as they are the transport method for lots of excreting minerals. However, as minerals continue to drip from the rocks’ cracks, the straw will eventually expand and grow “fatter” as the mineral lodges in the outside of the straw.

Are Stalactites Crystals?

Stalactites and stalagmites that are formed by calcite are most times overgrown by aragonite crystals. Interestingly, a lot of these stalactites and stalagmites may look like crystals but are naturally not.

Instead, they are mainly formed from water films located on the surface and not literally water drippings. They do not have hollow insides, which can be a little tricky for many people who try to harvest them.

Serves them right.

Why Do the Stalactites Have Pointed Tips While the Stalagmites Usually Do Not?

A lot of people have been perplexed by this! Seeing stalactites are formed in the ceiling and occur when drippings are done, it is natural for it to have a downward shape. It forms a tube shape – which is why they are called soda straws. However, not every stalactite forms a stalagmite, and as such, tends to stay positioned in the ceiling.

On the other hand, stalagmites are formed when the drippings reach the ground of the cave. It is generally a pile-up of the dripped minerals and, therefore, will not have sharp edges. In turn, stalagmites may end up folding over and over with the continued drippings.

Remember those Argonite crystals?

They are highly sought after by naturalists who use crystals for their healing powers. According to them, Aragonite provides strength and support, helping to combat anger and emotional stress. Aragonite is attuned to the Earth Goddess, encouraging conservation and recycling. It is a reliable earth-healer and grounding stone. Aragonite transforms geopathic stress.

Argonite crystals
photo credit : Britannica.com

Please don’t help yourself when you see it in a cave – go to a certified dealer who gets it in eco-friendly ways. Remember that old scout motto to leave no trail – so the next adventurer can enjoy the natural splendor.

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