In A Nutshell
People have known about the cave in the Chongqing province of China for a long time, but nobody had ever gone very far down into it. But when a team of scientists explored it last year, they found it was so huge that it had its own ecosystem, including plants, streams, and clouds. Now recognized as one of the largest cave systems in the world, no one knows what else it’s hiding in its unexplored depths.
The Whole Bushel
The Er Wang Dong cave had previously been mined for nitrate, but only close to the entrance. Nobody had gone any further simply because they couldn’t. The cave was too big, and it requires a lot of equipment to get down into it. There is only a small passage in the roof of the cave’s biggest chamber that allows people to pass through, and if you want to go in yourself, you’d want to bring a lot of rope: The chamber is over 250 meters (820 ft) tall, and 50,586 square meters (544,500 sq ft). That’s about the size of 12 football fields on the ground, and almost three times as tall as the Statue of Liberty (from the ground to the flame).
Seeing as the cave had never been properly explored before, the scientists had no idea how enormous this underground world would actually be. But when the team of 15 speleologists (people who study caves, naturally) finally entered, they weren’t just amazed at how enormous the cave was. They were more focused on the fact that they weren’t even able to see the cave ceiling. Not because it was so far away, obviously, but because the cave was so colossal that a cloud had formed and become stuck there, making it seem as if they weren’t in a closed room at all. For this reason, that part of the cave was named Cloud Ladder Hall.
While much of the vast cave system is as one would expect: rocky and dank. The network is so vast that it allows plenty of room for vegetation and flowing water. And that doesn’t mean some moss and a babbling brook. The cave is home to a sprawling garden of plant life that even includes trees. The raging rivers are strong, wide, and deep enough to sweep you away and over one of the waterfalls, never to be heard from again.
If you’re somehow still not convinced as to just how gargantuan this cave system is, bear in mind that the 15 speleologists spent an entire month down there exploring it, and they didn’t even see everything. While spending a month being the first people to explore an underground ecosystem may sound like a great adventure, it was also extremely dangerous for those involved. There are all the usual dangers of cave diving, such as falling or slipping from great heights (though few as great as the height in this cave), but there are many added dangers of exploring an uncharted cave as large as this. Obviously there’s the fact that, if the entrance they used became sealed, they may not have been able to find another one (assuming another one even exists). But water flowing through that entrance from the surface, or the chance that these unknown rivers could burst their banks also posed a very real threat. The human mind is programmed to be afraid of the unknown, so spending a month as the first people in a dark, nearly inescapable maze is pretty brave. And now that we’ve discovered an underground world, it may be time to take another look at all those lizard people conspiracy theories. Just in case.