for National Geographic News
Mining and tourism threaten Argentina's cave systems, say critics, who worry that the activities are destroying fragile underground ecosystems and archaeological sites.
"There are many threats and almost no laws to deal with them," said Carlos Benedetto, president of the Argentine Federation of Speleology (FADE), a leading cave science and exploration group.
"Where laws do exist, they are rarely enforced." (Related: Explore Central America's longest cave.)
Argentina, which has over 300 registered caves and countless unexplored systems, has relied on mining and tourism following the collapse of its economy five years ago.
"Mining activity affects dozens of caves in the country," Benedetto said. "A national law forces companies to carry out a study of environmental impact, but in few cases is it applied correctly."
Meanwhile, souvenir-snatching tourists add to the damage, breaking limestone stalagmites and stalactites from cave floors and ceilings.
"People don't realize that it takes a stalactite more than a thousand years to grow just one centimeter," Benedetto said, adding that paleoclimate researchers use the formations to reconstruct ancient climate patterns from millions of years ago.
Even seemingly innocuous human activity, such as cave walks, can damage underground ecologies, experts say.
Bats, crustaceans, fish, insects, spiders, and other cave-dwelling fauna have adapted to live in the very specific temperatures and dark, humid environments found in the underground ecosystems.
With sufficient numbers, heat from lights, human bodies, and other human activities can raise cave temperatures, says Buenos Aires-based geographer and mathematician Gabriel Redonte.
Redonte notes that a mere 2-degree-Fahrenheit (1.1-degree-Celsius) rise is enough to kill some cave species.
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