NSS Convention ~ July 25-30, 2021

Valdina Farm Sinkhole, Texas
Wet cave, by Mike Harris

America's Not-So-Secret Underground Society

There has been a secretive underground organization lurking around in the bowels of the earth for over 80 years. Members of the National Speleological Society (NSS) are passionate about the exploration, study, and conservation of caves - our out of sight and out of mind subsurface resources. On any given weekend, hundreds of cavers can be found crawling in caves throughout the country - digging in sinkholes, rappelling into pits, and swimming into springs - and few of the 10,000 enthusiasts in the US get paid to do it.

Neversink Cave, Alabama

Neversink Cave, Alabama

It takes a special kind of person that would dedicate the time, energy, and expense to develop the skills to explore deep pits, swim in passages with low air space, and crawl around and over blocks of fallen rock. Many of the members of the NSS dedicate long hours to explore, map, and document cave resources. They have found miles of unknown cave passages, new species, and fragile formations. It can be a cold, wet, muddy, and exhausting activity. As you can image, it also creates a subculture of like-minded people that occupy the shadows of society.

Caves are a unique and fragile world - one of perpetual darkness, constant temperature, and unique animals. They act as conduits for surface water to recharge our aquifers, sheltered early humans, and recorded and preserved our early history.

Cavers have been at the forefront in protecting our subterranean resources. They have dedicated countless hours removing trash from sinkholes; scrubbing graffiti from cave walls; building gates to protect delicate formations, archeological sites, and cave critters; mapping and documenting cave resources; and managing caves. They have actively been involved in the fight against White Nose Syndrome, a fungus that is killing millions of bats across the eastern US - and is now spreading westward. They have raised tens of thousands of dollars in member donations to help fund research to fight the disease.

There is a love-hate relationship with publicizing information on wild caves which is why caving is a commonly under represented sport. Many caves contain fragile ecosystems or formations that can be damaged by thoughtless or untrained visitors. In addition, caves can be dangerous to the unprepared. Cavers guard their secrets well from non-cavers as many caves have been irreparably damaged by the casual visitor - called spelunkers by members of the NSS.

Cave crawlway

Cave crawlway.

As a society, we don't appreciate or protect what we don't know about or understand. However, bringing attention to caves can bring unwanted and unprepared visitors that can do permanent damage to a cave and its inhabitants. How do you balance the message that caves and cave ecosystems are important and worth protecting without attracting large numbers of people that will damage the very resources you want to protect?

Many states have organizations that collect and disseminate cave resource information. Most of these organizations are operated by volunteer cavers. They are the experts that geologists and hydrologists turn to for cave information and help in documenting and managing caves.

So, if you really want to say with confidence that you know your rear end from a hole in the ground; have a spirit for adventure and a strong conservation ethic; have a tolerance for eclectic personalities that just crawled out from under a rock; and don't mind mud, water, or tight spaces; - maybe you would make a good caver. If so, seek out a chapter (grotto) of the National Speleological Society, attend a couple of meetings so folks know you're serious and want to invest some time to train you, and enjoy one of the last unexplored areas on earth.

Explore. Study. Protect.

Learn More

Download some of our free brochures to learn more about the National Speleological Society.

Learn about the society's diverse programs, activities, and aspects of speleology in which our members are involved. Understand the benefits of membership in the society, and the value of membership to caves, caving, and speleology.

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This booklet discusses caves and the many elements of the sport of caving. Exploring caves is becoming increasingly popular in all areas of the world, and caving responsibly is more important now than ever. Discussions include safety, training, and learning to reduce the detrimental effect cavers can have on caves and cave owner relations.

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Caves are the world's most remote and fragile wilderness. They provide irreplaceable habitats for rare plants and animals - some of which spend their entire lives in complete darkness. On its way to our drinking supply, water often travels through caves into wells, springs, and aquifers (the source of most of our drinking water). A cave's intricate passageways and dramatic formations offer exquisite scenery and fascinating opportunities for research and mapping. Many cave also preserve fragile prehistoric and historic records for millennia.

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Lava tubes play important roles in our ecosystem, our history, and our culture. Caves formed in lava are found where volcanoes have produced certain types of flowing lava. These mostly occur in the western United States, Canary Islands, Italy, Japan, Korea, Kenya, Australia, Pacific Ocean islands, and other volcanic hot spots.

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Bats are among the most beneficial, yet misunderstood mammals. They control insect populations, pollinate cacti and tropical fruit trees, and are important to medical and scientific advances. More than 1,100 bat species have been identified - a fifth of all known species of mammals. Sadly, bat colonies throughout the world are declining drastically due to human activities and disease.

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Members of our Landowner Relations Network Committee (LRNC) endeavor to establish a relationship with cave land-owners that see frequent visitors. Their mission is to reach out to land-owners of closed or limited-access caves to bring goodwill from the NSS. The NSS LRNC also works with grottos and internal organizations of the NSS to provide support for questions and inquiries that private landowners have about their caves.

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White-Nose Syndrome is a disease that is killing populations of bats in the U.S. and Canada as they hibernate in caves and mines. The disease has spread rapidly since it was first discovered in a single cave in New York in 2006. As of April 2016, bats with WNS have been found in more than 29 states and five Canadian provinces. The disease continues to spread across these countries.

Bats are an essential part of our environment. The loss of our bats could cause a ripple effect with potentially far-reaching consequences.

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