A World Beneath Your Feet; Mystery of Virginia's Karst Formation

Feb 19, 2020

A mysterious underground formation that’s key to the health of water may be in jeopardy.  These ancient structures are found in many parts of the world.  Virginia’s western spine is teeming with them. But they remain relatively unexplored here and that makes them hard to protect.

It’s called Karst, a Slovenian word for landscapes where soluble stone, mostly limestone and dolomite, wears away over time, creating crevices, caves and sinkholes. And that’s where the mystery lies, deep in the ground.

“This is a fantastic example of a sinking stream down here,” says William Orndorff.  He is Karst Protection Coordinator with Virginia’s Department of Conservation and Recreation, the only DCR full time staffer on the project for the entire state.

(Reporter) “So tell us what a ‘sinking stream’ is for people who may not know. (Orndorff) “It’s when you follow a creek or a stream and you're walking along and all of a sudden the stream disappears.”

When you drive the back country of western Virginia, you’ll often spot a road named, “Sinking Creek.”
And that’s because in an area of Karst terrain, streams that flow on the surface for some distance will, at some point, seem to just stop.

“And that's where you've reached a place where there's a connection between the surface and caves and conduits under the ground. The stream has is found that connection and now it's being captured into the karst aquifer.”

That’s where caves and crevices, hollowed out over millennia, hold water and support wildlife. But some are so small it’s impossible to trace the path the water takes when it flows through them.  And that makes it hard to find out what pollutants it might have picked up from agriculture or construction taking place on the surface even miles away.

“Unless you can walk that cave or unless you’ve done dye tracing you’ve lost that stream. You have no idea where that water goes until you do tests and studies to determine it.”

Orndorff says fewer than ten percent of these underground waterways in Virginia have ever been dye tested, and that’s left cities and towns blind when it comes to construction projects and other above ground activities that might affect the water below. Some have even built right on top of their watersheds.

In other parts of the world, Karst formations have been studied for centuries and have been mapped and preserved. “For example, in Slovenia, where I’m from, is where the science of Karst actually started.”
Katarina Kosič Ficco got her PhD in Karstology and studied at the Karst Institute in Slovenia. In that area, karst is ubiquitous and quite well explored and mapped. “So, since there’s such a long history of Karst research in Slovenia, they implement a lot of Karst related protection in the legislation.”

Kosič Ficco is a Karst protection specialist who works on a grant funded part time basis with Orndorff.
She says, “The main differences are the Karst there is bare” in Slovenia. “While here, you can see that the Karst is all covered, you see just fields or caves, so it’s harder to identify (Karst Terrain) here and from that perspective, maybe harder to protect.”

Sort of an underground, out of mind, kind of thing; and the tiny fraction of Karst waters this small team has tested, suggests the problems with aquifers underground may be bigger than we know.

As the only full timer on the job, Orndorff has been able to test a small number of aquifers. “Things we've seen are things like toxic leachate from sawdust piles contaminate caves and springs down in Lee County. We've seen industrial solvents showing up at springs up in the Shenandoah Valley. In well waters, we commonly see atrazine, a common herbicide used for preparing fields for planting.”

Orndorff says in residential areas different contaminants are found. “You pick up personal care products, you pick up caffeine, you pick up various hormones. You know, whatever we put in the ground, just like the water, it doesn't disappear. It gets transported, it gets moved.”

And that’s the thing about water, it’s always going somewhere, and as temperatures rise as expected, with climate change, water from the Karst terrain will travel in new and different ways. We’ll have more of that in our next report Karst and Climate Change.