By Julie Passantino, Gaia Intern
Have you ever been to the Empire Cave, better known as the Porter Cave? It is an amazing place towards the edge of campus of a small set of caves. Have you ever wondered how they formed? As a geology student at UCSC, I am very curious. According to UCSC’s Natural Reserve the formation of the caves is caused by metamorphism of limestone since it is very susceptible to erosion by water.
The campus is composed of mostly limestone and have many underground waterways which creates these maze-like cave structures under our campus. These structures are not just limited to campus for there are many caves in the Gulch area. These include IXL, Bat, Dolloff, Stump and Stearns and Empire Caves. Behind the geology of the caves, they range in different ages and elevations due to the time they were formed. A marine terrace is land that has been uplifted or land that has subsided that was once the beach or shore platform. As sea level has risen and fallen, and as the land has been lifted and dropped, marine terraces form.
Here in Santa Cruz there are five well known terraces that formed at different elevations and periods in geologic time. The majority of the caves are located on a marine terrace called Blackrock Terrace, which is aged to be approximately one million years old and created during the Tertiary-Quaternary period.
The cave complex allows many people to have adventures spelunking (cave exploring). Mina Mun, an economics major, goes to the caves weekly. When asked what she does there, Mina responded that she goes to study. “There are usually not too many people in the middle of the day which allows a quiet and cool place to study and do homework” using either a flashlight or natural lighting near the opening.
Before Mina was an economics major, she previously studied biology and enjoyed going to the caves to see the unique fauna. She states “it is just amazing to know that there are organisms that can live in that environment and it is great that we have an ecosystem so close to us that we can study”. The fauna are mostly arachnids and opilionids.
The caves are in danger of human impact. Recreational use of the caves is frowned upon by UCSC; at one point they cemented it off but someone cut it open, resulted by the jagged opening. Alex Jones of UCSC’s Natural Reserve states “Apparently it was dynamited at some point, perhaps more than once, and the University “gave up” and installed a ladder to reduce the likelihood of someone getting injured trying to get down into the cave”.
Mina and many other frequent visitors to Porter Caves do not know of the danger or harm they could be doing. It is dangerous because there are many fauna that need this environment to survive. Mina asks “how can we help?”
Alex Jones says that because of the mistreatment of the caves, they have to be cleaned quarterly. Along with that, the cave is becoming unstable due to erosion and during certain times of the year there is water running through the cave creating a very dangerous situation.
Human impact is harboring the chance to study this unique ecosystem. Alex states “the cave is a very sensitive habitat for a variety of rare invertebrate species, so limiting human impacts is certainly in their best interest.”
To help, students can inform their peers of the possible dangers and safety. It seems that the Natural Reserve could add a sign asking people not to enter and explain why. Though there is already a sign, it has more information about the cave than safety and environmental issues. The public needs to be informed about the wonderful ecosystem thriving in these caves. By learning about the beauty of it, we can strive to an overall understanding of preservation of the Gulch caves.