Article

Covid-19 and NPS Caves

Submitted by Joel Despain, National Cave and Karst Management Coordinator
for Inside Earth Newsletter, Fall 2020

Infographic entitled "COVID-19 Safety” with text “National Park Service, U.S. Department of the Interior” and National Park Service logo. Text reads “The National Park Service encourages all visitors to make smart decisions and follow CDC guidance

The Covid-19 pandemic has had major impacts around the globe and in the United States with the very sad loss of life and tremendous impacts to the economy. All Federal agencies have been impacted and have had to alter and adjust their operations. The National Park Service is no exception. Most national park sites been partially or completely closed for months with partial re-openings for the summer season of 2020.

For those responsible for providing recreational and educational opportunities to National Park cave visitors, Covid-19 has been a huge challenge, change and disruption. The question is how to give cave tours and keep everyone safe and free from the risk of Covid-19 infection? To that end Park Service staff from cave parks have participated in a series of video meetings throughout the Spring and Summer to discuss, brainstorm and share ideas for openings caves and protecting park visitors and staff at the same time. Staff from across the nation participated in the meetings and provided input and ideas. Below are some of their ideas and some of the work that has been done to welcome the public back to our National Park caves.

Disinfection in a cave environment is very different compared to a home or business. Microbes, including many types of viruses, occur naturally in caves. They are harmless and part of the natural ecosystem and natural processes within the cave. These microbes, particularly in some deep and old caves, can be very unusual creatures. Some produce chemicals or may have genetics that can be of benefit to people for advances in medicine, agriculture and other fields. In our National Parks caves we want to kill the Covid-19, but not impact our natural, original microbe community.

Disinfectant sprays are handy and effective since each spray disinfects a relatively large area. But, in caves that is opposite of what you want. Disinfecting a large area means killing natural cave microbes. Right now, Covid-19 comes from people and is spread to other people. So, the key is to only disinfect the areas where people travel through the cave and the facilities they use to do so. The cave trail, handrails, benches and seats and similar areas are the target for disinfection. But instead of spray, to concentrate the disinfection and to limit its reach, park rangers use cloth with disinfectant to wipe down surfaces and clean them. At Carlsbad Caverns National Park there are three miles of handrail to be disinfected regularly as well as restrooms and an elevator. It is a big challenge and a big job.

Social distancing can be a challenge underground. Some cave passages and rooms are large and spacious, but many are much smaller. Those areas of caves are the locations of concern for cave managers. In small cave rooms the virus could potentially spread between park visitors and staff.

One of the great things about cave tours at the National Parks is the opportunity to interact with the knowledgeable and enthusiastic Ranger guiding your trip. During Covid-19 it is still important to have Rangers be available to visitors, but it is likely safest to let-go of the intimacy of cave tours until the virus is under control. Instead parks are using other formats to communicate and interact with people in our National Park show caves.

As of late July 2020, Mammoth Cave National Park in Kentucky and Carlsbad Caverns National Park in New Mexico are open for visitation. But, for now, regular cave tours are a thing of the past even at these parks. Cave visitors now walk through the caves at their own pace. Only the larger cave passages are open. The tour routes through smaller passages are closed. Rangers are spaced along the trail to give quick presentations, to point out cave features and to answer questions as people walk by. To protect staff and visitors, Rangers at both caves stand behind Plexiglas partitions.

Fewer people are being allowed into the caves compared to the vast numbers that used to visit in mid-summer. Visitation is being held to 25% to 50% of former capacity to reduce crowding and to make social distancing easier.

In the Black Hills of South Dakota are two National Park caves – Wind Cave National Park and Jewel Cave National Monument. By coincidence these two caves were already closed due to construction work that began in 2019 and that has continued into 2020. Both of these caves and Mammoth Cave, where this is also construction, have had to develop special protocols and procedures to protect the contracted construction workers and keep them safe in the cave environment while they do their work.

Many of the caves with smaller more narrow passages in the West are still closed at this time. Park managers have determined that opening cannot be done in a safe manner. These caves include Timpanogos Cave National Monument in Utah, Oregon Caves National Monument and Preserve in Oregon and Crystal Cave in Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks in California. These parks will continue to monitor the situation with plans to open as soon as it is safe for all concerned.

Timpanogos Cave has worked for several years with university students using technology known as LIDAR to create a virtual reality of the interior of the cave. LIDAR is like a laser rangefinder that drank way too much coffee. LIDAR uses millions of laser range finder points assembled together to recreate a virtual version of the cave showing every rock and even the tiniest stalactites. Although, one short coming of LIDAR is that the images are not rendered in true color.

The work to develop the LIDAR rendition of Timpanogos Cave was completed in 2019, before Covid-19 came along. But, once the park closed due to the Pandemic, park staff realized that they had the means to offer the public virtual tours of their beautiful cave system. And that is what has been done. The park created a virtual tour focused on the geology of the cave and the nearby mountains. Besides the laser rendering, the tour includes photos and videos in true color, an introduction segment, maps of the cave and much more. The entire presentation is set to pleasant piano music completing a great tour. To take the virtual tour of Timpanogos Cave with Ranger Annie please visit https://www.nps.gov/tica/learn/photosmultimedia/virtualtour.htm

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Last updated: April 20, 2021