Chinese explorers have discovered a lost world in an exceptionally deep and large sinkhole in south China. And in this ancient subterranean space they expect to find flora and fauna unknown to science.
A cenote is a natural pit, or sinkhole, caused by bedrock collapsing in karst terrain that exposes groundwater channels. When we read the word cenote it’s normally followed up with a story about Aztec or Maya bodies and artifacts. This is because Mexico and Central America virtually float on underground rivers with thousands of cenotes peppering the landscape. However, this sinkhole story is from China, where an enormous karst sinkhole has recently been discovered containing its own untouched primeval ecosystem.
The 630-foot-deep sinkhole in China with primeval forest in its depths. ( SCMP)
China Sinkholes Are Numerous And Large
Karst terrain describes a landscape where the surface can be dissolved by groundwater circulating through soluble salt beds and carbonate rocks like gypsum and limestone. In China, cenotes are called tiankeng (heavenly pit), and a lost world has been found in a hitherto unknown sink hole near Ping’e village in the county of Leye, Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region, Central China, according to LiveScience.
The Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region borders Vietnam and is a designated UNESCO World Heritage Site . The area is known for its stalactites and stalagmite riddled caves, charging rivers, and towering tooth-like karst formations, and countless sinkholes. According to the Xinhua news agency the latest south China sinkhole is 630 feet (192 meters) deep and the interior measures 1,004 feet (306 meters) long and 492 feet (150 meters) wide. This is about half the depth of the deepest water-filled sinkhole on the planet, the El Zacatón sinkhole in northeast Mexico , which is 335 meters (1099 feet) deep.
Exploring Worlds Lost In Time
According to Newsweek this is the 30th sinkhole discovered in this area of China. George Veni, the US executive director of the National Cave and Karst Research Institute (NCKRI), told Live Science the discovery “is no surprise.” Southern China is “karst topography,” said the cave specialist, and he added that the entire region is a “landscape prone to dramatic sinkholes and otherworldly caves.”
Veni explained that rainwater is slightly acidic and that it picks up carbon dioxide as it runs through the soil, becoming even more acidic. It permeates cracks in the bedrock and wears away tunnels which over time create chambers. When these spaces get big enough they collapse and create sinkholes, like the one recently discovered in China. However, where most of the Mexican sinkholes are full of water, the Chinese speleologists and spelunkers discovered ancient trees measuring 131 feet (40 meters) tall in the latest China sinkhole.
People walk across a bridge in the man-made woods in Kashgar, China, which are said to increase drought when non-indigenous trees are used. (Zhang Guigi / China Daily )
China’s Short Sighted Relationship With Trees
Expedition leader, Chen Lixin, told Xinhua that the dense undergrowth on the sinkhole floor was as high as a person’s shoulders. And so bizarre was this lost space that Lixin added that he wouldn’t be surprised to learn “there are species found in these caves that have never been reported or described by science.” Zhang Yuanhai, a senior engineer with the Institute of Karst Geology, said the bottom of the sinkhole “seemed like another world.”
Botanists around the world will be waiting with bated breath for news of new tree species, and any such discoveries will perhaps shift focus from China’s current íssues with trees. The Gobi Desert and other arid regions in China are expanding because of overgrazing that has depleted border vegetation allowing wind and gravity to erode soils. In response, China has planted 66 billion trees in the past four decades as part of its fight against expanding deserts. Covering an area the size of Ireland every year, these new trees have successfully slowed down China′s deserts.
Notwithstanding, Troy Sternberg, a geographer at the University of Oxford, UK, says “it’s kind of foolish to plant trees in a desert” and that this will worsen water scarcity . A 2019 Nature article explains that most of the billions of trees planted in China “are not native to the regions where they have been planted and they use a lot of water.” This in effect compounds the negative effects of global warming by reducing the available water for human consumption.
Top image: An aerial photo of the giant China sinkhole or tiankeng at Leye-Fengshan Global Geopark, in south China’s Guangxi Province, which was huge and is home to an amazing primeval forest. Source: Zhou Hua / Xinhua
By Ashley Cowie