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What are Stalactites?

Mary McMahon
By
Updated Mar 05, 2024
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A stalactite is a mineralized water formation which arises in moist cave environments. Most classically, stalactites are made from calcium carbonate, although they may contain other minerals as well, which can cause these icicles of rock to be streaked with rich colors. Many caves around the world have stunning stalactite formations which are quite interesting to visit; if you have a passion to see some gigantic stalactites, Doolin Cave in Ireland and Jeita Cavern in Lebanon have some particularly fine examples.

These unique formations occur in moist caverns where water becomes mineralized as it flows slowly through the rock which makes up the cave. As the water forces its way out into the air, it evaporates, leaving behind a small deposit of calcium carbonate and other minerals. Over time, the deposit builds into what is known as a lime or soda straw, a hollow formation which dangles from the ceiling. The edges of the straw start to build up as well, ultimately forming the familiar elongated conical shape of a stalactite.

In cross-section, a stalactite has a hollow core where the soda straw once was. Scientists have also discovered that stalactites have very regular shapes which appear to be mathematically predictable. Researchers at the University of Arizona in 2004 learned that stalactites actually have the same shape, no matter what size they are; the shape is really just a question of magnification.

Where you find stalactites, you can also sometimes find stalagmites, conical formations which grow up from the floor of a cave, rather than from the ceiling. Stalagmites are solid, rather than hollow, and in situations where they grow up towards a descending stalactite, the two formations can fuse together and form a column. Many people have difficulty remembering which is which. It may be helpful to remember a little play on words: stalactites “hang tight” from the ceiling, while “mighty” stalagmites have no hollow central space.

A big stalactite can take a very long time to form. For this reason, you should resist the temptation to break off stalactites as souvenirs, since they will take centuries to regrow. In some areas, it is also not legal to take anything out of regional parks and preserves, to ensure that delightful sights like stalactites will always be there for people to enjoy.

Frequently Asked Questions

What are stalactites and how do they form?

Stalactites are icicle-shaped mineral deposits that hang from the ceilings of caves, formed by the dripping of mineral-rich water. As the water drips down, it leaves behind traces of minerals like calcite. Over time, these deposits grow into the recognizable shapes we see, a process that can take hundreds to thousands of years.

Where can you commonly find stalactites?

Stalactites are commonly found in limestone caves where groundwater has dissolved calcium carbonate, which then precipitates as calcite. They can be seen in many regions around the world, particularly in areas with karst landscapes, such as the Carlsbad Caverns in the USA or the Jeita Grotto in Lebanon.

Are stalactites only made of limestone?

While limestone, composed mainly of calcite, is the most common mineral in stalactites, they can also be formed from other minerals. For instance, in some caves, you might find stalactites made of aragonite, gypsum, or other minerals depending on the local geology and the composition of the groundwater.

How long does it take for a stalactite to form?

The growth rate of stalactites is incredibly slow, often less than 10 centimeters every thousand years. Factors like water supply, mineral concentration, and cave environment can influence this rate. In some cases, a stalactite might take several thousand years to grow just a few meters.

Can stalactites be found outside of caves?

While stalactites are most commonly associated with cave environments, they can also form in man-made structures such as mines, tunnels, and even buildings, wherever there is a consistent flow of mineral-laden water and suitable conditions for mineral deposition.

What is the difference between a stalactite and a stalagmite?

Stalactites hang from the ceiling of a cave, while stalagmites grow upward from the cave floor. They are both formed by the deposition of minerals from dripping water, but their orientation differs. When a stalactite and stalagmite grow until they meet, they form a column or pillar, sometimes referred to as a 'stalagnate'.

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Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a AllThingsNature researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

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Mary McMahon

Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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