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Skocjan Caves, Slovenia Skocjan Caves (3802558032).jpg
Škocjan Caves, Slovenia
Global distribution of major outcrops of carbonate rocks (mainly limestone, except evaporites) Carbonate-outcrops world.jpg
Global distribution of major outcrops of carbonate rocks (mainly limestone, except evaporites)
The Puerto Princesa Underground River, Philippines Puerto Princesa Underground River.jpg
The Puerto Princesa Underground River, Philippines

Karst is a topography formed from the dissolution of soluble rocks such as limestone, dolomite, and gypsum. It is characterized by underground drainage systems with sinkholes and caves. [1] It has also been documented for more weathering-resistant rocks, such as quartzite, given the right conditions. [2] Subterranean drainage may limit surface water, with few to no rivers or lakes. However, in regions where the dissolved bedrock is covered (perhaps by debris) or confined by one or more superimposed non-soluble rock strata, distinctive karst features may occur only at subsurface levels and can be totally missing above ground.


The study of karst is considered of prime importance in petroleum geology because as much as 50% of the world's hydrocarbon reserves are hosted in porous karst systems. [3]


The English word karst was borrowed from German Karst in the late 19th century, [4] which entered German much earlier. [5] According to one interpretation the term is derived from the German name for a number of geological, geomorphological, and hydrological features found within the range of the Dinaric Alps, stretching from the northeastern corner of Italy above the city of Trieste (at the time part of the Austrian Littoral), across the Balkan peninsula along the coast of the eastern Adriatic to Kosovo and North Macedonia, where the massif of the Šar Mountains begins, and more specifically the karst zone at the northwestern-most section, described in early topographical research as a plateau, between Italy and Slovenia.

In the local South Slavic languages, all variations of the word are derived from a Romanized Illyrian base (yielding Latin : carsus, Dalmatian Romance carsus), later metathesized from the reconstructed form *korsъ into forms such as Serbo-Croatian : krš, kras. [6] [7] [8] [9] Languages preserving the older, non-metathesized form include Italian : Carso, German : Karst, and Albanian : karsti; the lack of metathesis precludes borrowing from any of the South Slavic languages, specifically Slovene. [10] [11] The Slovene common noun kras was first attested in the 18th century, and the adjective form kraški in the 16th century. [12] As a proper noun, the Slovene form Grast was first attested in 1177. [13]

Ultimately, the word is of Mediterranean origin. It has been suggested that the word may derive from the Proto-Indo-European root karra- 'rock'. [14] The name may also be connected to the oronym Kar(u)sádios oros cited by Ptolemy, and perhaps also to Latin Carusardius. [12] [13]

Early studies

Karst limestones as statuary in Shenyang Imperial Palace, Shenyang, China Karstic stones Shenyang Imperial Palace.jpg
Karst limestones as statuary in Shenyang Imperial Palace, Shenyang, China

Johann Weikhard von Valvasor, a pioneer of the study of karst in Slovenia and a fellow of the Royal Society for Improving Natural Knowledge, London, introduced the word karst to European scholars in 1689, describing the phenomenon of underground flows of rivers in his account of Lake Cerknica. [15]

Jovan Cvijić greatly advanced the knowledge of karst regions, so much that he became known as the "father of karst geomorphology". Primarily discussing the karstic regions of the Balkans, Cvijić's 1893 publication Das Karstphänomen describes landforms such as karren, dolines and poljes. [3] In a 1918 publication, Cvijić proposed a cyclical model for karstic landscape development. [3] [16] Karst hydrology emerged as a discipline in the late 1950s and early 1960s in France. Previously, the activities of cave explorers, called speleologists, had been dismissed as more of a sport than a science, meaning that underground karstic caves and their associated watercourses were, from a scientific perspective, understudied. [17]


Doline in the causse de Sauveterre, Lozere, France Causse de Sauveterre doline.jpg
Doline in the causse de Sauveterre, Lozère, France

The development of karst occurs whenever acidic water starts to break down the surface of bedrock near its cracks, or bedding planes. As the bedrock (typically limestone or dolomite) continues to degrade, its cracks tend to get bigger. As time goes on, these fractures will become wider, and eventually a drainage system of some sort may start to form underneath. If this underground drainage system does form, it will speed up the development of karst formations there because more water will be able to flow through the region, giving it more erosive power. [18]

Dissolution mechanism

The carbonic acid that causes karstic features is formed as rain passes through Earth's atmosphere picking up carbon dioxide (CO2), which dissolves in the water. Once the rain reaches the ground, it may pass through soil that can provide much more CO2 to form a weak carbonic acid solution, which dissolves calcium carbonate. The primary reaction sequence in limestone dissolution is the following:

CaCO3+H2CO3Ca2++2 HCO
Li River, Guilin, China 1 li jiang guilin yangshuo 2011.jpg
Li River, Guilin, China

In particular and very rare conditions such as encountered in the past in Lechuguilla Cave in New Mexico (and more recently in the Frasassi Caves in Italy), other mechanisms may also play a role. The oxidation of sulfides leading to the formation of sulfuric acid can also be one of the corrosion factors in karst formation. As oxygen (O2)-rich surface waters seep into deep anoxic karst systems, they bring oxygen, which reacts with sulfide present in the system (pyrite or hydrogen sulfide) to form sulfuric acid (H2SO4). Sulfuric acid then reacts with calcium carbonate, causing increased erosion within the limestone formation. This chain of reactions is:

H2S+2 O2H2SO4(sulfide oxidation)
H2SO4+2 H2OSO2−
+2 H3O+(sulfuric acid dissociation)
CaCO3+2 H3O+Ca2++H2CO3+2 H2O(calcium carbonate dissolution)
Ca2++SO42-CaSO4(formation of calcium sulfate)
CaSO4+2 H2OCaSO4 · 2 H2O(formation of gypsum)

This reaction chain forms gypsum. [19]


Rubaksa tufa plug in Ethiopia Rubaksa tufa plug.jpg
Rubaksa tufa plug in Ethiopia
Limestone pavement in Dent de Crolles, France Karst Dent-de-Crolle-8.jpg
Limestone pavement in Dent de Crolles, France

The karstification of a landscape may result in a variety of large- or small-scale features both on the surface and beneath. On exposed surfaces, small features may include solution flutes (or rillenkarren), runnels, limestone pavement (clints and grikes), collectively called karren or lapiez. Medium-sized surface features may include sinkholes or cenotes (closed basins), vertical shafts, foibe (inverted funnel shaped sinkholes), disappearing streams, and reappearing springs. Large-scale features may include limestone pavements, poljes, and karst valleys. Mature karst landscapes, where more bedrock has been removed than remains, may result in karst towers, or haystack/eggbox landscapes. Beneath the surface, complex underground drainage systems (such as karst aquifers) and extensive caves and cavern systems may form.

Erosion along limestone shores, notably in the tropics, produces karst topography that includes a sharp makatea surface above the normal reach of the sea, and undercuts that are mostly the result of biological activity or bioerosion at or a little above mean sea level. Some of the most dramatic of these formations can be seen in Thailand's Phangnga Bay and at Halong Bay in Vietnam.

Calcium carbonate dissolved into water may precipitate out where the water discharges some of its dissolved carbon dioxide. Rivers which emerge from springs may produce tufa terraces, consisting of layers of calcite deposited over extended periods of time. In caves, a variety of features collectively called speleothems are formed by deposition of calcium carbonate and other dissolved minerals.


Features typical of well-developed karst terrain KarstterrainUSGS.jpg
Features typical of well-developed karst terrain
A karst spring in the Jura mountains near Ouhans in eastern France at the source of the river Loue SourceDeLaLoue.jpg
A karst spring in the Jura mountains near Ouhans in eastern France at the source of the river Loue

Farming in karst areas must take into account the lack of surface water. The soils may be fertile enough, and rainfall may be adequate, but rainwater quickly moves through the crevices into the ground, sometimes leaving the surface soil parched between rains.

A karst fenster (karst window) occurs when an underground stream emerges onto the surface between layers of rock, cascades some distance, and then disappears back down, often into a sinkhole. Rivers in karst areas may disappear underground a number of times and spring up again in different places, usually under a different name (like Ljubljanica, the river of seven names). An example of this is the Popo Agie River in Fremont County, Wyoming. At a site simply named "The Sinks" in Sinks Canyon State Park, the river flows into a cave in a formation known as the Madison Limestone and then rises again 800 m (12 mi) down the canyon in a placid pool. A turlough is a unique type of seasonal lake found in Irish karst areas which are formed through the annual welling-up of water from the underground water system.

Water supplies from wells in karst topography may be unsafe, as the water may have run unimpeded from a sinkhole in a cattle pasture, through a cave and to the well, bypassing the normal filtering that occurs in a porous aquifer. Karst formations are cavernous and therefore have high rates of permeability, resulting in reduced opportunity for contaminants to be filtered. Groundwater in karst areas is just as easily polluted as surface streams. Sinkholes have often been used as farmstead or community trash dumps. Overloaded or malfunctioning septic tanks in karst landscapes may dump raw sewage directly into underground channels.

The karst topography also poses difficulties for human inhabitants. Sinkholes can develop gradually as surface openings enlarge, but progressive erosion is frequently unseen until the roof of a cavern suddenly collapses. Such events have swallowed homes, cattle, cars, and farm machinery. In the United States, sudden collapse of such a cavern-sinkhole swallowed part of the collection of the National Corvette Museum in Bowling Green, Kentucky in 2014. [20]

Interstratal karst

Interstratal karst is a karstic landscape which is developed beneath a cover of insoluble rocks. Typically this will involve a cover of sandstone overlying limestone strata undergoing solution. In the United Kingdom for example extensive doline fields have developed at Cefn yr Ystrad, Mynydd Llangatwg and Mynydd Llangynidr in South Wales across a cover of Twrch Sandstone which overlies concealed Carboniferous Limestone, the last-named having been declared a site of special scientific interest in respect of it. [21]


Kegelkarst is a type of tropical karst terrain with numerous cone-like hills, formed by cockpits, mogotes, and poljes and without strong fluvial erosion processes. This terrain is found in Cuba, Jamaica, Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Puerto Rico, southern China, Myanmar, Thailand, Laos and Vietnam. [22]


Pseudokarsts are similar in form or appearance to karst features but are created by different mechanisms. Examples include lava caves and granite tors—for example, Labertouche Cave in Victoria, Australia—and paleocollapse features. Mud Caves are an example of pseudokarst.


Paleokarst or palaeokarst is a development of karst observed in geological history and preserved within the rock sequence, effectively a fossil karst. There are for example palaeokarstic surfaces exposed within the Clydach Valley Subgroup of the Carboniferous Limestone sequence of South Wales which developed as sub-aerial weathering of recently formed limestones took place during periods of non-deposition within the early part of the period. Sedimentation resumed and further limestone strata were deposited on an irregular karstic surface, the cycle recurring several times in connection with fluctuating sea levels over prolonged periods. [23]

Karst areas

Lunan Stone Forest, Yunnan, China Yunnanshilin2.jpg
Lunan Stone Forest, Yunnan, China

The world's largest limestone karst is Australia's Nullarbor Plain. Slovenia has the world's highest risk of sinkholes, while the western Highland Rim in the eastern United States is at the second-highest risk of karst sinkholes. [24] [25]

Mexico hosts important karstic regions in the Yucatán Peninsula and Chiapas. [26]

The South China Karst in the provinces of Guizhou, Guangxi, and Yunnan provinces is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

The Tham Luang Nang Non karstic cave system in northern Thailand was made famous by the 2018 rescue of a junior football team.

See also

Related Research Articles

Sinkhole Depression or hole in the ground caused by collapse of the surface into an existing void space

A sinkhole, also known as a cenote, sink, sink-hole, swallet, swallow hole, or doline, is a depression or hole in the ground caused by some form of collapse of the surface layer. Most are caused by karst processes – the chemical dissolution of carbonate rocks or suffosion processes. Sinkholes vary in size from 1 to 600 m both in diameter and depth, and vary in form from soil-lined bowls to bedrock-edged chasms. Sinkholes may form gradually or suddenly, and are found worldwide.

Foiba A type of deep natural sinkhole

A foibajama in South Slavic languages scientific and colloquial vocabulary — is a type of deep natural sinkhole, doline, or sink, and is a collapsed portion of bedrock above a void. Sinks may be a sheer vertical opening into a cave, or a shallow depression of many hectares. They are common in the Kras (Carso) region shared by Italy and Slovenia, as well as in a karst of Dinaric Alps in Bosnia and Herzegovina, Montenegro and Croatia.

Altopiano delle Murge mountain

The Altopiano delle Murge is a karst topographic plateau of rectangular shape in southern Italy. Most of it lies within Apulia and corresponds with the sub-region known as Murgia or Le Murge. The plateau lies mainly in the Metropolitan City of Bari and the province of Barletta-Andria-Trani, but extends into the provinces of Brindisi and Taranto to the south; and into Matera in Basilicata to the west. The name is believed to originate from the Latin murex, meaning "sharp stone".

Eramosa Karst

The Eramosa Karst is a provincially significant Earth Science Area of Natural and Scientific Interest in Ontario, Canada, located in Stoney Creek, a constituent community of the City of Hamilton, and immediately south of the Niagara Escarpment.

The Lost River is a river that rises in Vernon Township, Washington County, Indiana, and discharges into the East Fork of the White River in Lost River Township, Martin County, Indiana. The river's unusual hydrology has led to two of its features being named as National Natural Landmarks.

Karst fenster An unroofed portion of a cavern which reveals part of a subterranean river

Karst fenster is a geomorphic feature formed from the dissolution of carbonate bedrock. In this feature, a spring emerges, then the discharge abruptly disappears into a sinkhole. The word fenster is German for 'window', as these features are windows into the karst landscape.


A ponor is a natural opening where surface water enters into underground passages; they may be found in karst landscapes where the geology and the geomorphology is typically dominated by porous limestone rock.

The Nambung River is a river in the Wheatbelt region of Western Australia, 170 kilometres (106 mi) north of Perth. The river drains an area between the towns of Cervantes and Badgingarra. In its lower reaches the Nambung River forms a chain of waterholes in the Nambung Wetlands where it disappears underground into a limestone karst system 5.5 kilometres (3 mi) from the Indian Ocean.

Solutional cave cave formed in soluble rock such as limestone, chalk, dolomite, marble, salt beds or gypsum

A solutional cave or karst cave is a cave usually formed in the soluble rock limestone. It is the most frequently occurring type of cave. It can also form in other rocks, including chalk, dolomite, marble, salt beds, and gypsum.

Škocjan Caves Regional Park is located in the Škocjan Karst, a vast flat landscape that lies at an elevation between 420 and 450 m in the southeast part of the Karst area. Following its independence, the Slovenia committed itself to protecting the Škocjan Caves area; for this reason, it established Škocjan Caves Regional Park and its managing authority, the Škocjan Caves Park Public Service Agency.

Karst spring spring that is part of a karst system

A karst spring or karstic spring is a spring that is part of a karst hydrological system.


Suffosion is one of the two geological processes by which subsidence sinkholes or dolines are formed, the other being due to collapse of an underlying cave or void, with most sinkholes formed by the suffosion process. Suffosion sinkholes are normally associated with karst topography although they may form in other types of rock including chalk, gypsum and basalt. In the karst of the UK's Yorkshire Dales, numerous surface depressions known locally as "shakeholes" are the result of glacial till washing into fissures in the underlying limestone.

Uvala (landform) A local toponym in some regions in Croatia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Montenegro and Serbia for a closed karst depression

Uvala is originally a local toponym used by people in some regions in Slovenia, Croatia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Montenegro and Serbia. In geosciences it denotes a closed karst depression, a terrain form usually of elongated or compound structure and of larger size than that of sinkholes (dolines). It is a morphological form frequently found in the “Outer Dinarides” anywhere between Slovenia and Greece. But large closed karst depressions are found on all continents in different landscapes and therefore uvala has become a globally established term, used also to distinguish such depressions from poljes. Definitions of uvalas are often poorly empirically supported. “The coalescence of dolines” is a most frequently found and still dominant explanation. Yet because of the ongoing dissatisfaction with this definition the term ‘uvala’ has often been belittled – occasionally it was even proposed that the term be given up altogether.

Municipality of Mirna Peč Municipality in Slovenia

The Municipality of Mirna Peč is a municipality in southeast Slovenia, located in the traditional region of Lower Carniola. The seat of the municipality, which was established in 1998, is Mirna Peč. With an estimated population of 2,800, the municipality is included in the Southeast Slovenia Statistical Region.

Little Blue Lake Flooded sinkhole dive site in South Australia

Little Blue Lake is a water-filled doline in the Australian state of South Australia located in the state's south-east in the locality of Mount Schank about 20 kilometres (12 mi) south of the municipal seat of Mount Gambier. It is notable locally as a swimming hole and nationally as a cave diving site. It is managed by the District Council of Grant and has been developed as a recreational and tourism venue.

Cedar Sink Sinkhole in Mammoth Cave National Park

Cedar Sink is a vertical-walled large depression, or sinkhole, in the ground, that is located in Edmonson County, Kentucky and contained within and managed by Mammoth Cave National Park. The sinkhole measures 300 feet (91.4 m) from the top sandstone plateau to the bottom of the sink and was caused by collapse of the surface soil. The landscape is karst topography, which means the region is influenced by the dissolution of soluble rocks. Sinkholes, caves, and dolines typically characterize these underground drainage systems. Cedar Sink has a bottom area of about 7 acres (2.8 ha) and has more fertile soil compared to the ridgetops.

Zalomka river in Bosnia and Herzegovina

Zalomka is a karstic river in the southern part of Bosnia and Herzegovina, and one of the largest sinking rivers in the country and the world. It collect its waters from Gatačko Polje.

Karst Living Museum

The Karst Living Museum is a nature trail in Slovenia. Part of the Karst Plateau, the museum is an ecologically-important area with many karst features. It was recognized as Slovenia's best thematic trail in 2017, and the region is a Natura 2000 site.


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Further reading