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Newly Discovered Cave Could Be Among Canada’s Largest

The “Sarlacc Pit,” as its been informally dubbed, was discovered last spring during a caribou survey in British Columbia’s Wells Gray Provincial Park

smithsonian.com

In this age of satellite images and GPS mapping, it’s hard to imagine how anything of note on Earth has not already been discovered. But deep in the wilderness of British Columbia’s Wells Gray Provincial Park, researchers recently spotted what may turn out to be among Canada's largest known caves.

According to the Canadian Press, the entrance to the massive cavern was found last March by scientists conducting a caribou survey of the area for the Ministry of Environment and Climate Change. Geologists have since visited the site on foot to get a handle on the deep cavern, which researchers have temporarily dubbed the “Sarlacc Pit” (yes, in reference to Return of the Jedi) while First Nations people are consulted to see if they already have a name for the feature before an official title is chosen.

The entrance to the pit is massive, with a giant waterfall cascading to the bottom, which is thought to be 1,150-feet deep, though mist from the falls obscures the full view. “It’s about the size of a soccer field,” geologist Catherine Hickson, who visited the site in September with a survey team, tells CP. “So, if you think of a soccer field and you put that soccer field on its end so you have this pit going down. Think about this giant circular or oval hole that just goes down and down and down. It is truly amazing.”

John Pollack, another member of the team that visited the site in September, tells Harry Wilson at Canadian Geographic that the exact size of the cave is yet to be determined, but the team believes that the water flowing into the cave exits in an underground river about 1.3 miles away from the pit at a depth of 1,600 feet. That's pretty deep, though it falls short of the current record-holder for Canada’s deepest cave, the Bisaro Anima cave, which is located on the flanks of Mount Bisaro near Fernie, British Columbia, and per official measurements in January, drops almost 2,200 feet.

“I’ve been in some of the biggest caves in the world, and this thing has an entrance that is truly immense, and not just by Canadian standards,” Pollack tells Wilson. “The scale of this thing is just huge, and about as big as they come in Canada.”

The team hopes to mount an expedition to explore the interior of the cave in 2020, but it would be an immense undertaking. Just getting to the bottom of the deep entrance shaft will take some effort. And it’s likely the cave is filled by a raging river, making the task highly technical. The feat is so difficult, Pollack doubts that if anyone in the past ever came across the cave that they have tried to enter it. The team is keeping the exact location of the Pit secret for now, just in case.

But even if someone wanted to find and explore the pit, Pollack says it would likely be impossible. It is so remote it’s not feasible for a team to carry in enough equipment on foot. And the pit drains an area of mountainous terrain close to four square miles, meaning a massive amount of meltwater gushes into the opening most of the year. The only time that exploration can even be considered is the month of September, when the flow of water is at its minimum. That constant flow of water is what likely formed the massive pit in the first place.

Bevan Ernst, part of the caribou monitoring team that found the pit, tells the BBC that the cave may have avoided detection in the past because it was covered over with snow or avalanche debris during the annual survey. The cave is composed of striped karst, a type of rock interspersed with layers of marble. The area is known for its karst terrain, including sinkholes, underground rivers and towers created from the erosion of water soluable rock like limestone. While the pit is magnitudes larger than typical karst features, it’s possible that other massive caves could be hiding under the glaciers and snow of Wells Gray Provincial Park.

“We think everything is known and everything has been discovered,” Hickson tells the Canadian Press. “But here’s a major discovery that is made in today’s world and likely has never been seen before and certainly not explored before. It’s just a message that there is still stuff out there yet to do and yet to be discovered.”

About Jason Daley

Jason Daley is a Madison, Wisconsin-based writer specializing in natural history, science, travel, and the environment. His work has appeared in Discover, Popular Science, Outside, Men’s Journal, and other magazines.

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