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New Secret Passages Discovered in Carlsbad Caverns

Cavers explore Munchkin Land
A large, newly found room in Lechuguilla Cave called Munchkin Land. Note the caver standing on a rock, for scale. (Image credit: Derek Bristol)

Despite being explored for more than a century, Carlsbad Caverns National Park still hides more passages.

A team exploring the park's Lechuguilla Cave, the deepest cave in the continental United States, climbed over 410 feet (125 meters) into a high dome in early May. Upon reaching the top, lead climber James Hunter discovered a maze of previously unknown passages, pits and large rooms. The team named it Oz.

One of the newly discovered pits, dubbed Kansas Twister, is 510 feet (155 m) tall, making it the largest vertical expanse yet discovered in the caverns. It's about half as high as New York City's Chrysler Building or Chicago's Sears Tower. The cavers use laser distance meters to measure the height from the floor to their final rope anchor.

A large room, which they named Munchkin Land, measured 600 feet (183 m) long, 100-150 feet (30-46 m) wide, and 75-150 feet (23-46 m) tall.

Lechuguilla Cave is known worldwide for its large rooms, unusual minerals, massive and fragile cave formations, and scientific importance.  This discovery heralds new areas for physical and scientific exploration.

Ten cavers from Colorado, South Dakota, New Mexico, California and Arizona participated in the eight-day underground expedition that made these discoveries.

Since mapping began in 1986, explorers have surveyed over 134.6 miles (216.6 kilometers) of passages in Lechuguilla Cave. Because of the cave's delicate environment and scientific importance, only about 100 people, most of them vetted explorers and scientists, are permitted to enter each year.

Most of the newly found section of Lechuguilla Cave is in a layer of rock called the Yates Formation, deep red, orange and yellow rock with relatively few stalactites and stalagmites.

The untouched nature of Lechuguilla Cave has been a boon for research. A recent study published in the journal PLoS ONE found that ancient bacteria in the cave possessed a surprising degree of bacterial resistance.

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Live Science Staff
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