Nine hundred feet below a Mexican desert hundreds of giant white crystals, some more than 90 feet long and 13 feet wide, fill a hot (137 F) and humid cavern. Pictures of people exploring this crystal palace look as if Rick Moranis had shrunk them down to the size of an ant and then put them into a the center of a geode.
These massive selenite (calcium sulfate) crystals are unusual not just for the colossal size but also for their purity of composition. These features alone suggest an ancient origin of these crystals. This cavern is just a small part of a large mining operation beneath Naica, Mexico. Mining operations in 1985 drained the hot salty water from this chamber stopping crystal formation at that point. Now dozens of scientific studies (see references) have been performed on the crystals to estimate their age and how they grew to such enormous size.
Initial estimates of the age of the crystals ranged from hundreds of thousands to possible millions of years. The rate of crystal growth is a complicated combination of temperature, pressure, and concentration of necessary mineral crystal-building components. The Naica mines includes multiple chambers with selenite crystals. The deepest is the one with the largest crystals but there are other champers with abundant crystals that are 10 feet long and not much more than 1 foot in diameter. These caves are not as deep and therefore are not as close to the hot magma chamber sitting beneath the mine which provides the heat that has created the conditions for silver and lead deposition–the real reason for the mine’s existence. The lack of consistent temperatures and mineral concentrations in the upper chambers resulted in a shorter window of time for crystal growth.
The formation of these crystals is all about chemistry. At varying temperatures and in the presence of other minerals that may become incorporated into the crystals, calcium sulphate can take on many different forms such as selenite and gypsum. Precise measurements of the crystals from the deepest Naica cavern have demonstrated (Reference 1) that these crystals have grown in a nearly uniform environment of about 58 degrees Celsius during their entire formation. Laboratory experiments have allowed direct measurements of crystal growth rates at temperatures and concentrations of minerals in the water today. That growth rate has been measured at 42 mm per thousand years at 58 degrees Celsius.
Under these conditions crystals would have required tens and hundreds of thousands of years to form. Could they have formed more quickly in the past under different conditions? Theoretically, yes, however, close examination of the crystals reveals they were not formed more quickly in the past. Why? Because if conditions—such as temperatures and dissolved mineral concentrations—had been much different in the past, then the crystals themselves would have recorded those changes in their crystalline structure as they formed. Think of it like tree rings, if the climate is the same every year, then the rings of an individual tree will have little variation but if there is prolonged drought followed by years of plenty the tree rings will record that variable history for us to see.
In addition to using growth rates and high-resolution microscopy techniques to estimate the age and growth rates of the crystals, multiple radiometric methods have been applied to the crystals confirming that the largest crystals are hundreds of thousands of years old (see references).
In short, the very existence of these spectacular crystals is compelling proof that the world has experienced a long geological and chemical history.
The young-earth response to giant crystals
Young earth proponents can not accept the long history of these crystals but rather believe they must have formed within the past 4300 years. The don’t deny their existence nor do they say that God created them supernaturally in the creation week since they are found in a cavern that sits above layers of rock that they believe were laid down by a global flood less than 4500 years ago. Hence, they must fit the origins of these crystals into their shortened chronology wherein the cavern itself is of recent origin and the crystals inside that cavern even more recently formed.
So how do they respond to the evidence of crystals that exceed their understanding earth’s history?
Thus far, one major young-earth ministry, The institute for Creation Research, has ignored the Naica crystals. Another, Creation Ministries International (CMI), wrote one small article in 2006 which claimed the crystals could have grown very quickly. Their evidence? They quote a mine superintendent who stated that under perfect conditions that these crystals could have formed in 30 to 50 years years. I have been able to confirm that reference but have found no evidence this person had any knowledge of crystal formation or was able to provide any evidence for his claim including what he meant by “perfect conditions.” He may have been sincere in this belief that the the crystals formed quickly but no experts that have visited the cave have ever suggested that these crystals formed that quickly.
Interestingly, CMI highlights the mine superintendent’s opinion as if it were the most important fact that its readers should be aware of. It’s all they need to create doubt in the minds of their audience about the age of the crystals.
A second argument that CMI makes involves the observed purity of the crystals. They agree that the purity of the crystals requires a constant environment over time but they can’t believe that the chamber could have experiences such a constant environment—high temperature and high mineral concentrations—for such a long time and therefore we should doubt the great age of the crystals. However, they provide no alternative explanation for the purity of the crystals within their young-age paradigm.
The largest young-earth ministry, Answers in Genesis (AiG), wrote about the Niaca crystals in 2011 after research (Reference 1) was published that detailed measurements of the crystal structure and growth rates providing very strong evidence for very slow growth. AiG appears to draw directly upon the conclusions of the 700-word CMI news item above to form their own conclusions.
Here is their conclusion regarding the origin of these crystals:
However these magnificent crystals formed, they formed within the few thousand years since the Flood. And given the stability of conditions needed to form them, the true time frame is likely many orders of magnitude smaller than that proposed in the latest study. How long is that? Likely closer to the 30 or so years originally suggested by the mining company geologist and superintendent of exploration in a Mexican newspaper article.
The AiG writer provides no observational evidence or any measurement of growth rate even under ideal conditions that would allow for such fast crystal growth. The author ignores the detailed scientific research which shows the crystals are very old and produces no chemical analysis which would suggest that the crystals have experienced different rates of growth in the past versus the present. But to provide assurance to their reader that they need not worry about these crystals the author accepts—without questioning or any substantiation—and promotes the initial reaction by a mine employee.
The title of the AiG article is “Crystal Rate of Growth Debated.” What debate? The article reports the 2011 research which details growth rates calculations and the characterization of the crystals. There is not debate about the numbers and subsequently a dozen other studies have confirmed the slow growth of these crystals. The debate the AiG article seems to refer to is the fact that a mine employee upon discovery of the crystals suggested that they may have grown in 30 to 50 years. How is that a debate? A suggestion not backed up by evidence versus years of study is not a debate.
In today’s vernacular what Answers in Genesis has provided are alternative facts or “fake science.” They lift up unsupported speculation and treat it as equal if not superior to expert analysis. By framing the article as a “debate” they suggest that there are two sides to the story which sends the message that is possible that either is wrong and thus theirs may be right. The goal isn’t to provide a rational defense but to create enough confusion that the true believer won’t look behind the curtain and see the data for what it is.
Chemistry is not a friend of the young-earth hypothesis
Look at the references at the end of this article. There is a lot that is known about crystal formation. How these particular crystals grow is based on some fundamental rules in chemistry. Ken Ham and AiG like to talk about how all data is interpreted through a worldview as if having the right worldview – the earth is young – will make all the data fit correctly. I suppose that could be true but to fit his worldview he will need change the laws of chemistry. It has been done before, YECs appeal to supernatural intervention at times to remove pesky problems like heat dissipation from volcanic activity during the Flood. If God can be appealed to for miraculous changes in thermodynamic laws I suppose He could be appealed to change a number of laws of chemistry to make these crystals grow differently in the past than they do in the present.
AiG isn’t afraid to say that the field of genetics is all wrong about mutations, that species can form super-fast, or that radiometric dating doesn’t work because the past was different from the present. Maybe the next step is to suggest that covalent and ionic bonds used to have different strengths in the past than they do today.
Unfortunately this is characteristic of the logic and depth of the “answers” that Answers in Genesis provides to data that doesn’t fit their paradigm. Hundreds of geological features of the earth are met with the same set of answers—changing physical constants or conspiracy to hide or manipulate data—in an effort to explain what can easily be understood within an old-earth context.
The Naica crystals are just another in a long list of structures that cannot reasonably be doubted as the product of an ancient earth.
Footnote: The existence of the chamber of massive Naica crystals has been known for more than a decade. I was prompted to write this short article by a friend who noted the relevance of these crystals to the young-earth hypothesis and the recent revelation that scientists have extracted bacteria trapped in the crystals and been able to sequence their genome. I look forward to the publication of that work which should provide interesting details about the strange community of bacteria and viruses that live in these extreme conditions deep inside the earth.
(1) Van Driessche, A. E. S., J. M. Garcia-Ruiz, K. Tsukamoto, L. D. Patiño-Lopez, and H. Satoh. “Ultraslow growth rates of giant gypsum crystals.” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 108, no. 38 (2011): 15721-15726. http://www.pnas.org/content/108/38/15721.short
Otálora, Fermín, and JuanMa García-Ruiz. “Nucleation and growth of the Naica giant gypsum crystals.” Chemical Society Reviews 43, no. 7 (2014): 2013-2026. http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0033589413001063
Krüger, Yves, Juan Manuel García-Ruiz, Àngels Canals, Dominik Marti, Martin Frenz, and Alexander ES Van Driessche. “Determining gypsum growth temperatures using monophase fluid inclusions—Application to the giant gypsum crystals of Naica, Mexico.” Geology 41, no. 2 (2013): 119-122.
Gázquez, Fernando, José Maria Calaforra, Paolo Forti, Fernando Rull, and Jesús Martínez-Frías. “Gypsum-carbonate speleothems from Cueva de las Espadas (Naica mine, Mexico): mineralogy and palaeohydrogeological implications.” International Journal of Speleology 41, no. 2 (2012): 8.
Ragon, Marie, Alexander ES Van Driessche, Juan Manuel Garcia Ruiz, David Moreira, and Purificación López-García. “Microbial diversity in the deep-subsurface hydrothermal aquifer feeding the giant gypsum crystal-bearing Naica Mine, Mexico.” Frontiers in microbiology 4 (2013): 37.
Van Driessche, A. E. S., A. Canals, M. Ossorio, R. C. Reyes, and J. M. García-Ruiz. “Unraveling the Sulfate Sources of (Giant) Gypsum Crystals Using Gypsum Isotope Fractionation Factors.” The Journal of Geology 124, no. 2 (2016): 235-245.
Espino del Castillo, Adriana, Hugo Beraldi-Campesi, Patricia Amador-Lemus, Hiram Isaac Beltrán, and Sylvie Le Borgne. “Bacterial diversity associated with mineral substrates and hot springs from caves and tunnels of the Naica Underground System (Chihuahua, Mexico).” International Journal of Speleology 47, no. 2 (2018): 10.