Maggie: This might look like a typical forest from above, but Mammoth Cave National Park in Kentucky is home to a unique underground world. With over 392 miles of underground passages, Mammoth Cave is the longest-known cave system in the world. These seemingly endless miles of underground pathways were important to both Native American culture and European settlers who mined precious minerals from the cave walls. And while it looks like nothing could live in these dark caves, I was surprised to find out that I was surrounded.
Dr. Toomey, these are unlike any crickets I have ever seen in my life. What is going on?
Dr. Toomey: These are cave-adapted crickets. These are crickets that don’t actually make a sound.
This is a cave adapted daddy long legs. It has no eyes…
Maggie: And he will live his entire life in the cave. He will never see the daylight.
Dr. Toomey: Correct. Will never leave the cave.
This is a cave-adapted crayfish. These have no pigment, have no eyes, they’re adapted for life here in the dark.
Maggie: So, how did this dark place these critters all call home come to be?
Dr. Toomey: This whole area that we’re standing in was dissolved out by water. It wouldn’t be here if their wasn’t water flowing through this area.
Maggie: Water is the lifeblood of the caves. It created these tunnels, and it feeds the ecosystem. But today, water is also one of the biggest threats to the caves. Air pollution, sewage, chemicals, oil and gas are contaminating the water here.
Dr. Toomey: All the organism on this planet share a need for clean water, us included.
Maggie: That is why park officials are working to protect the caves’ water supply by purifying it before it even gets to the caves.
One of the ways Mammoth Cave protects ground water is through filtration systems like the one I am standing on. And while it might not look like that much, rainwater that runs off in parking lots around the park, filters through this system. But where does it ultimately end up?
Two and a half hours later, that filtered runoff water ends up right here at the natural entrance to Mammoth Cave. Let’s keep on following the water deeper in.
So, Dr. Toomey, we are following the water that first started in the parking lot. We saw it at the entrance to the cave, and now we are deep inside the cave and there is more water.
Dr. Toomey: Yes. This is water coming from the surface down to River Styx and then it will go out through the spring. And here we have got the water and we are monitoring it for various quality parameters, its temperature, pH, how much oxygen there is in the water.
Maggie: And it is not just life inside the caves that benefits from this cleaner water.
Dr. Toomey: This is where the cave water flows to. It’s not done here because when it comes into the Green River, it will flow into the Ohio River, into the Mississippi River and, ultimately, in the Gulf of Mexico.
Maggie: And Dr. Toomey says keeping water clean around the world actually starts a lot closer to home.
Dr. Toomey: Local action can really make a difference. The water we are seeing in the Gulf of Mexico was local water somewhere. So, if every community is able to help protect the quality of the water, that will make a huge difference by the time you mix all of that water together.
Maggie: Helping preserve America’s underground wonders, like Mammoth Cave, for generations to come.
Maggie Rulli, Channel One News.