Research

Falling Drops and Forming Stalagmites

A wide, pale stalagmite is struck by a falling drop, which sprays in a crown

The vast stalactites and stalagmites found in caves take millennia to form. Mineral-rich water seeps down the icicle-like stalactites and then drips onto stalagmites below, each drop depositing a little more calcite onto the growing rock. By observing this dripping action first-hand, researchers found that most falling drops create a splash that’s much smaller than the width of the stalagmite they fall onto. So how do stalagmites end up so wide?

It turns out that there’s a large variance in where drops hit the stalagmite. There’s no wind in these caves to push the droplets, so researchers concluded the drop’s trajectory depends on the vortices it sheds as it falls. A drop that falls from a short height will have a vertical trajectory. But once the drop is falling tens of meters, it can end up as many as several centimeters to the side of where it would fall in a vacuum. This scatter-shot variation in drop impacts is what enables stalagmites to grow so wide. (Image and research credit: J. Parmentier et al., source; via NYTimes; submitted by Kam-Yung Soh)

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