What's the difference between stalactites and stalagmites?

The limestone Buchan Caves in Victoria, Australia. What's the difference between stalactites and stalagmites, anyway? Which one's which? See more cave pictures.
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Two explorers, searching the depths of a giant cave, collect various samples of rocks and minerals for research. They've descended into an area never before touched by human hands nor seen by human eyes, so they must be extra careful not to disturb the natural formations. One false step could upset thousands of years of peace and quiet. But as one explorer absent-mindedly admires the shimmering beauty of the cave, the other urgently calls out: "Watch out for that stalagmite!" The explorer looks up, but he's unfortunately made a horrible mistake -- he's mixed up stalactites and stalagmites, and a second later he steps on a precious stalagmite and breaks it.

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It's one of those timeless questions that plague us from elementary school on, right up there with "Why is the sky blue?" What exactly is the difference between stalactites and stalagmites? Which one hangs above and which one stands up from the ground?

Stalactites and stalagmites are what are known as speleothems, deposits of minerals that form into cave structures and line the insides of a cave. Stalactites are the formations that hang from the ceilings of caves like icicles, while stalagmites look like they're emerging from the ground and stand up like a traffic cone. Some may take thousands of years to form, while others can grow quite rapidly. The two formations are also sometimes referred to collectively as dripstone.

Is that all there is to stalactites and stalagmites, or are there any more differences between the two formations? How is each one formed, for instance? Do they form independently from each other or at the same time? To learn about speleothems, read about famous cave formations and find out some of the classic memory tricks to remember the difference between stalactites and stalagmites, see the next page.

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The Formation of Stalactites and Stalagmites

Educational signs in the Luray Caverns in Virginia promote public understanding of the difference between stalactites and stalagmites.
Educational signs in the Luray Caverns in Virginia promote public understanding of the difference between stalactites and stalagmites.
Alan Band/Fox Photos/Getty Images

We can trace the words stalactite and stalagmite back to the Greek word "stalassein," which means "to drip." This is fitting because it describes how both are formed in nature. Although they look lifelike and a little creepy, stalactites and stalagmites grow simply because of water running over and through inorganic material.

Limestone caves, where most stalactites and stalagmites are found, are mainly composed of calcite, a common mineral found in sedimentary rocks. Calcite molecules are made of calcium and carbonate ions, and are referred to as CaCO3, or calcium carbonate. When rainwater falls over a cave and trickles through rocks, it picks up carbon dioxide and minerals from limestone. If we add water, carbon dioxide and calcium carbonate together, we get this equation:

H20 + CO2 + CaCO3 = Ca (HCO3)2

Ca (HCO3)2 is known as calcium bicarbonate, and the water carries the substance, basically dissolved calcite, through the cracks of the roof of a cave. Once water comes into contact with the air inside the cave, however, some of the calcium bicarbonate is transformed back into calcium carbonate, and calcite starts to form around the crack. As water continues to drip, the length and thickness of the calcite grows, and eventually a stalactite forms on the ceiling. It can take a very long time for most stalactites to form -- they usually grow anywhere between a quarter-inch and an inch every century.

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It doesn't end there -- we haven't talked about stalagmites yet. Of course, stalagmites don't just emerge from the ground. The water dripping from the end of a stalactite falls to the floor of a cave and deposits more calcite into a mound. Soon enough, a stalagmite will form in a conelike shape. This is why you usually find stalactites and stalagmites in pairs, and sometimes they'll even grow together to form one big column. There are many limestone caves around the world famous for their displays of dripstone, including Carlsbad Caverns in New Mexico, Timpanogos Caves in Utah, Mammoth Cave in Kentucky and Jenolan Caves and Buchan Caves in Australi.

And if you ever forget which one's which, there are several classic memory tricks to get stalactites and stalagmites straight. Here are a few:

  • Stalactites have to hold on "tight" to the top of the cave
  • Stalactites hang from the ceiling like ladies' tights
  • Stalactite has a "t" in it, as in "t" for "top"
  • Stalactite has a "c" in it, as in "c" for "ceiling," and stalagmite has a "g" in it, as in "g" for "ground"

For lots more information on caves and all things speleological, see the next page.

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Sources

  • Barrans, Richard. "Baking soda." Argonne National Laboratory - Division of Educational Programs. http://www.newton.dep.anl.gov/askasci/chem99/chem99492.htm
  • Lyell, Charles. "The Student's Elements of Geology." Geology.com. http://geology.com/publications/lyell/
  • "Stalactite and stalagmite." The Columbia Encyclopedia, Sixth edition. Columbia University press, 2007. http://www.encyclopedia.com/doc/1E1-stalacti.html
  • "What is calcium carbonate?" Industrial Minerals Association - North America. http://www.ima-na.org/about_industrial_minerals/calcium_carbonate.asp