The Naica Cave of Crystals is a Giant Problem for a Young Earth

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.

niaca-cave-gypsum-crystals2

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.

A large crystal retrieved from the Naica mine. By Rob Lavinsky, iRocks.com – CC-BY-SA-3.0, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=10160539 Picture of cave crystal wikipedia attribution

A large crystal retrieved from the Naica mine. By Rob Lavinsky, iRocks.com – CC-BY-SA-3.0, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=10160539 Picture of cave crystal wikipedia attribution

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 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 crystals that are only 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 reason the mine exists.  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 (selenite, gypsum).   Very precise measurements of the crystals from the deepest Naica cavern have demonstrated (reference 1) that these crystals have grown in a nearly uniform environments 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.

So, based on today’s conditions these crystals would have required 10s and hundreds of thousands of years to form, but 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 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 believe the cavern itself is of recent origin and the crystals inside that cavern even more recently formed.

So how do they respond to this direct contradiction to their understanding of earth’s history?

The institute for Creation Research has ignored the Naica crystals.   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. 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.

However, 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 the reader 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.

This is their entire defense for a sub-5000 year-old age for these crystals.

Answers in Genesis (AiG) wrote about the Niaca crystals in 2011 after a study (Reference 1) was published that reported 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 a 700-word CMI news item 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 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 is good at providing are alternative facts. 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 all data is interpreted through a worldview as if having the right worldview – the earth is young – that the data can be made to fit it.  I suppose that could be true but to fit his worldview he will need change the laws of chemistry. Its 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.

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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.

 

Comments

  1. thehonestskepticatgmaildotcom says:

    In the footnote, you say, ” They report that these bacteria are distantly related to any bacteria previously reported.” Do you mean “not distantly related”? I’m sure that it is an important point, so I wanted to be sure I understood where you were going with it. Feel free to edit and delete comment.

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    • The report I read said that some of the bacteria where only distantly related to any known bacteria. Unfortunately there is no publication yet with the data so I don’t know what “distantly related” really means. I am anxious to see how different they really are. I expect it won’t be as radical as it sounds.

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      • thehonestskepticatgmaildotcom says:

        I see. Thanks very much. I guess that the word “any” makes it a little confusing. Maybe what you said in your reply is more clear? That they are “only distantly related to any known bacteria”? Again, feel free to delete this thread… I only wanted the footnote to be clear.

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      • Practically any extensive sample of bacteria includes some that are only distantly related to any known bacteria. How distant and how known give a lot of ambiguity.

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  2. Doyou have a link to the CMI work quoting the mine supervisor, and what do we know about his qualifications?

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    • CMI doesn’t reference their quote but I am sure it must be the to same source that AIG uses. They reference this article: http://www.mineraltown.com/Reports/giant_crystals/giant_selenite_crystals.php You can find the 30 years quote in the notes. I have not been able to find any other source or any information on the person who supposedly said this. Since the article itself talks about the deposits in the limestone of silver ore taking place over 30 million years, why would anyone then turn around and say that these crystals probably formed in 30 years. It seems to be more likely that this is a typo than someone that actually believed it would only take 30 years.

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      • I’ve possibly found the original use of the 30 year estimate here: http://www.smithsonianmag.com/science-nature/crystal-moonbeams-61506257/ This was an early report right after the cave was discovered. I can find no one else that has suggested such a short time frame since other than the YEC articles who partially quote this article. The person quoted is a mine engineer. The PNAS paper I refer to from 2001 acknowledged the same man as the one that collected samples for them for their study which showed the crystals grew very slowly for a hundred thousand years or more. I wonder what the engineer thinks of that study?

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        • From that link, which is Smithsonian, no less: ” “Under perfect conditions,” says Roberto Villasuso, exploration superintendent at the Naica Mine, “these crystals probably would have taken between 30 to 100 years to grow.”

          So not easily dismissed as a typo, unfortunately

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  3. Reblogged this on gottadobetterthanthis and commented:

    ~
    Hey fellow Oklahomans,

    We all know about the selenite crystals in our salt flats. Here is an informative article centering around the ginormous ones down in Mexico.

    Cognitive dissonance is an affliction we like to hold on to until it hurts too much. It’s easy to let go of if we are determined to uphold truth, no matter how it presents.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. As best I can recall from the time these crystals were first reported: it was initially thought by the mine operators that the natural caverns had been an abandoned part of the mine left over from earlier excavations. Hence, it was thought the crystals had grown very quickly, based on when older parts of the mine had been used. But then it was found that the caverns were indeed natural, and the crystals were carefully examined.
    The YECies will still deny the results of any study they do not like or understand.

    Like

  5. wowfunny251 says:

    Dang, the pre-flood world must be pretty boring, 4/5ths of what’s interesting in nature was a result of the fall and the flood according to YEC’s. Ecosystems, crystals, canyons, rainbows, storms, craters, diversity within groups like felines and canines, sandstone, snow & ice, mountains, etc.

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  6. OnlyCurious says:

    Excellent article, NH!

    Quick question though. You say the YECs argue these must have formed rapidly because stable conditions needed to make pure crystals could not last long periods of time. How would you respond to this point?

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  7. Thanks for informing about another fascinating part of our planet! I understand why you view this as a “giant problem” for YEC’s, though I think they would be less impressed by this one. I think the strongest challenges for the YEC worldview are evidences that tell a story, suggesting a long sequence of distinct events that are challenging to fit inside the narrow windows of YEC timeframes. (ex. overlapping strata with differently inclined angles that need enough time to deposit horizontally, harden, uplift into angles, erode, and repeat several times) I don’t see as much indication of distinct story elements here, so while I understand from your perspective, where we only know of slow processes for crystal growth, that it’s unreasonable to assume they could grow much faster, I understand how a YEC might consider it reasonable to assume there are simply unknown faster processes.

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  8. You want to add to the “giant problem” by remembering that there has to be a cave before there can be any crystals. Flood Geology should have “deposited” solid limestone. If end-Flood “escaping” fluids suddenly did Earth’s caves, why are so many without visible entrances? We should rather say that God created (!) caves for so many bat species – insects (like fish) food in a sinless world – seen as a “swarm” that never perishes from year to year. GLL

    Liked by 1 person

  9. So, I’m not sure if you know this, but I’ve been studying dating methods and would like to hear more about the “ring-dating” method you mentioned slightly. I understand tree rings, etc, and that these salt growths have something comparable, but how are they formed? I know with trees, it’s a thing with seasons, but if the conditions in this cave stayed exactly the same, how would it “know” when to start a new ring? This comment is not technical, I’m sure I’m not using terms correctly. ;) Just curious.

    Like

  10. Thomas Kärrlander says:

    It is always “hundred million years ago”. So in that case, how could the environment be the same all the time?

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    • I’m not sure where the quote “hundred millions year ago” comes from. In the case of the crystals I don’t know of anyone claiming they took that long to form. Those that have researched the specific characteristics of these suggest several hundred thousands years. A mile underground it is not unreasonable that conditions of salinity and high heat could not be maintained for that long. A hundred million years would be tough given the erosion and uplift of continents would have changed the conditions of this rock a fair amount over time.

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