Feb 182017
 

The Naica caves, in the northern state of Chihuahua are home to the world’s largest natural crystals. The crystals are selenite, said to enhance sex drive.

The formation of the crystals caves is described in more detail below, but in February 2017, Penelope Boston, head of Nasa’s Astrobiology Institute announced that “bizarre and ancient microbes” had been found in these caves. The discovery came after nine years of work and was first announced at the American Association for the Advancement of Science conference in Boston. The life forms in the Naica caves survive by living on minerals such as iron and manganese and could be 50,000 years old. The find is still subject to peer-review and independent confirmation:

How were the crystals discovered?

Early in 2001, news emerged of a truly extraordinary discovery in caverns deep under the earth in the state of Chihuahua. Miners tunneling through the Naica Hills, south of Chihuahua City, in search of silver and zinc, found huge mineral crystals, far larger than any natural crystals previously seen anywhere else on the planet.

Massive crystals in Naica Cave, Chihuahua

Massive crystals in Naica Cave, Chihuahua. Photo credit: Speleoresearch Archive and Films La Venta

The monster crystals, over six meters long, are made of selenite, a crystalline form of the mineral gypsum (the number one ingredient in blackboard chalk!). For its pale translucence, this form of gypsum is known as selenite, named after Selene, the Greek goddess of the moon.

The largest crystals are over 11 meters long, and weigh more than 55 tons. Scientists believe they have found DNA from ancient bacterial life trapped in air bubbles inside the crystals.

The crystals formed when the caverns were completely filled with hot water (warmer than 50 degrees C) supersaturated with calcium sulphate (gypsum) for very long periods of time. The estimated growth rate, confirmed by uranium-thorium dating, is 1.5 mm per 1000 years, which means that the longest crystals took more than 500,000 years to form.

The engineer working for the mining company Peñoles that first reported these caves believes that many more caves probably exist, but stresses that they would never have been located at all if it had not been for the mine’s massive pumps (pumping more than 16,000 gallons of water out each minute) working round the clock for years. This pumping has lowered the water table from 100 meters below the surface to about 300 meters in the area of the mines. Since the caverns have been drained, the crystals are no longer growing, and the temperatures in the cavern have fallen by about 0.5 degrees C each year.

The Naica (“shady place”) hills have been actively mined for more than a century. Even though early prospectors discovered silver here in 1794, the first formal mining claim was not made until a century later in 1896, by one Santiago Stoppelli, and large scale mining only began in 1900.

Ten years later, super-large sword-shaped crystals of selenite were found in a cavern at a depth of 120 meters. Over the years, a steady stream of geologists and mineral collectors have visited this 70-meter-diameter cave, since renamed the Cave of the Swords, which is now equipped with paths, lights and a ventilation system. Even with this system, the temperature in the cave is a stifling 40 degrees C! Several typical examples of selenite crystals from this cave, ranging in length from 1.2 to 1.6 meters (4 to 4.25 feet), are displayed in the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History.

But these specimens from the Cave of the Swords are small fry in size when compared with the latest discoveries, 300 meters below the surface, in the Cave of the Crystals. In two relatively small chambers, each the size of a small apartment, miners found incredibly large selenite crystals, some over six meters long. The crystals combine to form massive fifteen-meter-long columns, “the size of pine trees”, as well as hundreds of formations shaped like sharks’ teeth, jutting about a meter up from the cave floor. The overall effect is, in the words of Richard Fisher, an Arizona-based photographer and adventurer, like walking into an enormous geode.

The Future

Mining operations at Naica have been in the hands of the Peñoles group since 1961 and the mine, one of the most productive in Chihuahua, still produces ample quantities of lead, silver and zinc.

Even if the silver ore is eventually worked out, Peñoles realizes that the caverns might have a very bright future as a major geo-tourist attraction. The company has not only taken steps to safeguard the crystals, but was already developing a tourism plan, which involved the installation of an air-conditioning system in the caverns, since the temperature in the Cave of Crystals is a mind-boggling 60 degrees Celsius. This heat, combined with the 100% humidity in the caverns, is so suffocating and disorienting that researchers can only safely spend a few minutes at a time studying this fantastic sight.

The harsh conditions have not deterred crystal looters who are already reported to be breaking through padlocked doors and trying to chisel prize specimens off the cave walls. This is a dangerous business and the effort proved fatal for one would-be collector when the gigantic crystal he was attempted to sever broke away from the ceiling and crushed him as it fell. The combined physical forces of Newton and Darwin caused this particular plunderer to meet his maker!

It was announced in October 2015 that Peñoles had been forced to close its Naica mine indefinitely, following its failure to reduce the level of water in the mine following a flood in January 2015. The company was seeking to redeploy more than 400 workers. In 2014, the Naica mine produced 19,694 tons of lead, 15,399 tons of zinc and 1.9 million ounces of silver (25% 6% and 3% respectively of the company’s total output of each metal).

Whether or not attempts will be made in the future to allow access to view the crystals is unknown. It is perfectly possible that other miners in the region might be lucky enough to find even bigger crystals nearby!

These cavers may never be suitable for sustainable tourism. To preserve these magnificent crystals for future generations, the decision may have to be taken to leave the caverns under water, protecting the crystals that already exist and allowing new ones to grow.

These amazing crystals are one of the latest additions to the incredible list of natural wonders that can be enjoyed in Mexico!

For truly amazing images of the crystals, watch the Discovery Channel documentary “Naica: Secrets of The Crystal Cave” (2008). Short clip on Discovery Channel.

Note:

  • This is an update of a post originally published in 2010

Mexico’s geology, relief and landforms are analyzed in chapters 2 and 3 of Geo-Mexico: the geography and dynamics of modern Mexico. Buy your copy of this invaluable reference guide today!

Aug 292016
 

State-owned Pemex currently has six oil refineries in Mexico, which process around 1.05 million barrels/day (b/d) of crude.

The company has now shelved plans to add a $10-billion refinery at Tula (Hidalgo) owing to doubts about its long-term viability. It does seem that it is unlikely to be needed since Mexico’s energy reforms have led to several private companies submitting proposals to build less expensive, modular “mini-refineries” in Mexico. Each of these mini-refineries is 80-90% smaller than any of the six giant Pemex refineries.

Planned new refineries. Credit: El Economista / Refmex.com.mx

Planned new refineries. Credit: El Economista / Refmex.com.mx

A consortium of U.S. firms, Refinerías Unidas de México (Refmex), plans to invest 11.6 billion dollars to build 9 mini-refineries, starting with a $1.5billion refinery in Campeche with the capacity to refine between 40,000 and 60,000 b/d. Construction would take between 18 and 30 months.

Other proposed locations (map) include Cadereyta (Nuevo León), Dos Bocas (Tabasco), Minatitlán (Veracruz), Lázaro Cárdenas (Michoacán), Manzanillo (Colima), Salina Cruz (Oaxaca), Tula (Hidalgo) and Tuxpan (Veracruz). Several of these locations are in the recently announced federal Special Economic Zones, which offer fiscal incentives to investors.

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Aug 152016
 

Avid Geo-Mexico readers will know that we included a few paragraphs about the Happy Planet Index in our 2010 book, which we later quoted in this 2013 post, Mexico and the Happy Planet Index.

The latest (2016) Happy Planet Index (HPI), which uses slightly modified criteria, shows that Mexico has risen to 2nd place in the world rankings, behind Costa Rica, but ahead of Colombia, Vanuatu and Vietnam and well ahead of the U.S. (#108) and Canada (#85).

The Happy Planet Index is a compound index that combines four measures:

  • life expectancy
  • well being (life satisfaction)
  • ecological footprint
  • inequality

The HPI looked at data for 140 countries. For life expectancy, Mexico ranked #39, for well being #11, for ecological footprint #77 and for inequality #60.

Global pattern of ecological footprint. Source: HPI report, 2016.

Global pattern of ecological footprint. Source: HPI report, 2016.

The world map for ecological footprint shows the global pattern. The colors show three categories for ecological footprints, those below 1.7, those between 1.7 and 3.5 and those that exceed 3.5, where the numbers are global hectares (gha) per person.

These two sections from the Happy Planet Index country report for Mexico are a useful snapshot of where Mexico stands right now:

What’s working well in Mexico?

In recent years, massive steps have been taken to improve the health of the population of Mexico – notably achieving universal health coverage in 2012, making essential health services available to the entire population.

In 2014, a tax was imposed on sugary drinks with the express aim of tackling of obesity – this despite strong corporate opposition. The tax had already led to a 12% decrease in the consumption of such drinks by the end of the year.

Environmental sustainability is receiving growing political attention, and was included as one of five key pillars in Mexico’s National Development Plan for 2007–12. Mexico was the second country in the world to incorporate long-term climate targets into national legislation, and is taking important steps to conserve its forests and protect its rich biodiversity.

What could be improved?

Significant challenges remain for Mexico: economic inequality is a massive problem with a considerable gap between the richest and poorest – the top 20% of the population earns more than thirteen times as much as the bottom 20% of the population.

Mexico’s poverty rates are particularly high among indigenous people. Amnesty International has  highlighted Mexico’s human rights violations, especially relating to irregular migrants. On top of these issues, the importance of the oil industry to Mexico’s economy complicates its environmental efforts.

Mexico recently reached cross-party agreement on the Pacto por Mexico, a pact of 95 initiatives aiming to tackle some of these issues – an important step for the country’s future.

The HPI attempts to quantify an alternative vision of progress where people strive for happy and healthy lives alongside ecological efficiency in how they use resources. Mexico may have a high happiness index, but (like the rest of the world) it still has an awful long way to go to ensure a sustainable future for our grandchildren.

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Aug 112016
 

The map shows the percentage change in each state’s GDP during 2015. (Data from the National Statistics Agency, INEGI).

Change in GDP, by state, 2014-2015. Data: INEGI. Cartography: Tony Burton / Geo-Mexico

Change in GDP, by state, 2014-2015. Data: INEGI. Cartography: Tony Burton / Geo-Mexico

The fastest growing states in 2015 were Hidalgo (6.3%), Chihuahua (6.2%) and Nuevo León (5.9%).

While the economy of most northern Mexico states grew at a respectable rate during 2015, the economies of three Gulf coast states actually shrank last year, mainly owing to the drop in oil prices. GDP fell in three oil-rich states: Campeche (- 8.2%), Veracruz (- 2.3%) and Tabasco (- 0.2%).

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Aug 012016
 

The National Statistics Agency’s (INEGI’s) 2015 Survey of Socioeconomic Conditions includes data for average household incomes in Mexico, on a state-by-state basis. The national average household income (for a three month period) is $45,887 (pesos) . The map below shows how each state’s average household income compares to the national average.

Household income, by state, 2015. Data: INEGI. Cartography: Tony Burton / Geo-Mexico; all rights reserved

Household income, by state, 2015. Data: INEGI. Cartography: Tony Burton / Geo-Mexico

The state with the highest household income is Nuevo León, with $66,836, more than 140% of the national average. The state with the lowest household income is Guerrero ($27,584), where the average household income is only 60.1% of the national average. Guerrero’s average household income is only 41% of the average for Nuevo León.

As we have regularly highlighted in the past, regional differences in Mexico are considerable, and a definite “north-south divide”can be identified for almost every socio-economic variable. Development efforts need to be focused on improving the key indicators for southern Mexico and reducing these regional disparities.

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Jul 282016
 

The latest report on poverty from the National Statistics Agency, INEGI, looks like good news for Mexico’s poorest people but, sadly, this is only a mirage, based on a change in the measurement methods used.

The 2015 edition of INEGI’s Survey of Socioeconomic Conditions showed an overall real increase of 11.9% in household earnings, with an increase of over 30% in some states. According to the report, Mexico’s poor are richer by a third compared to last year, a change that some politicians will no doubt claim is the direct result of their effective policies.

Social activists were stunned by the claims of poverty reduction and Mexico’s National Council for the Evaluation of Social Development Policy (CONEVAL), which measures poverty levels using INEGI’s data, said the changes by the statistics institute were not credible.

According to Jonathan Heath, an independent economic researcher in Mexico City, Inegi is claiming that the previous methods overestimated poverty levels, but the change in methodology, without public consultation, “raises suspicion.”

Quite apart from the misleadingly positive spin on numbers, the change in methodology makes it completely impossible to compare current poverty rates with the rates for previous years.

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Jul 182016
 

The Montebello Lakes National Park (Parque Nacional Lagunas de Montebello) in Chiapas is a 6040-hectare expanse of rainforest, at elevations ranging from 1500 to 1800 metres (5000-6000 ft) above sea level, near the border with Guatemala. The park has 59 small and mid-sized lakes of varying colors. The variations in color include several tones of blue and green, due to differences in mineral content. About a quarter of the lakes are readily accessible by vehicle or on foot, and they are spectacular on a sunny day.

montebello-lakes-chiapas-gov

The park, which is an international RAMSAR wetland site, was the earliest national park to be established in Chiapas, and dates back to 1959. It was formally designated a UNESCO biosphere reserve in 2009.

This short (2 min, 20 sec) postandfly video gives a great overview of the park’s beauty:


Several of the lakes are used for swimming, canoeing, and kayaking. The largest is Lake Tziscao.

Additional attractions within the park include sinkholes (cenotes), caves (Grutas San Rafael del Arco) and two Maya ruins, the most important of which is Chinkultic, whose ruins date back to the third century. That site’s main pyramid, the Acropolis, affords an excellent view over the region.

The nearest city to the Montebello park is Comitán, an hour’s drive to the west. The picturesque city of San Cristóbal de las Casas, a very popular tourist city, is about three hour’s drive from the park in the same direction.

The protection of the lakes does face some issues. They are so close to the Guatemalan border that the area has been a regular staging post for central Americans entering Mexico illegally, hoping to eventually reach the USA.

In recent years, scientists have expressed concern that the lakes are losing their colors and becoming muddy and lifeless. They attribute this to untreated wastewater and agricultural runoff entering the lakes (via the Grande River which flows directly into the lakes) and deforestation of parts of the lake basins.

The Chiapas state Congress called for action in 2015, and has renewed its efforts this year. Proponents of action want a special commission to be set up to coordinate protection and recuperation efforts. Among those working to preserve this amazing treasure in southern Mexico are researchers from several major Mexican universities, including the National University (UNAM) and the Autonomous University of Chiapas.

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Jul 042016
 

A recent Bloomberg analysis highlights Mexico’s “Clean Energy Revolution”. The analysis of Mexico’s electricity sector finds that total energy demand will rise 72% over the next 25 years, from 305,000 GWh in 2015 to 512,000 GWh in 2040, while installed capacity will triple, to around 247 GW.

Fossil fuels are currently the source of 78% of the electricity generated in Mexico, but renewable energy (including hydro-power) will account for 69% by 2040.

According to Bloomberg, the costs of producing wind and solar energy will become fully competitive with electricity from natural gas power stations by 2025.

The report concludes that the renewable energy sector in Mexico represents an enormous investment opportunity, worth up to $186 billion between now and 2040.

The federal government is increasing its investments in research and development of renewable energy sources each year, up to $310 million in 2020, to build more “energy innovation centers” (Cemies). The five existing Cemies focus on geothermal, solar, wind, bioenergy and ocean energy respectively. Two new Cemies will investigate the use of intelligent networks and carbon capture alternatives.

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Jun 302016
 

Pemex has concluded a round of upgrades to its refineries which means that all fuels made in Mexico are now “clean” (ultra-low-sulfur). Pemex refineries produce 420,000 barrels of vehicle fuels a day, but national demand is for 800,000 barrels a day.

pemex

Imported fuels, which come mainly from refineries in Texas, already meet ultra-low-sulfur standards. The state oil giant has invested 1.7 billion dollars in modifying its six refineries to produce only ultra-low-sulfur fuels.

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Jun 202016
 

Mexico is the world’s leading producer of silver and has occupied top spot for several years. Mexico’s output of silver rose 2.0% in 2015 to 5,372 metric tons (189.5 million ounces). Mexico is responsible for 21% of global production, followed by Peru (15%), China (12%) and Australia and Russia (each 6%). About 70% of silver produced in Mexico is exported, the remainder is sold on the domestic market.

Global silver production fell slightly in 2015 due to decreased output from Canada, Australia and China. World demand for silver in 2015 reached a record 33,170 tons (1,170 million ounces), due to surges in three manufacturing sectors: jewelry, ingots and coins, and photo-voltaic solar panels.

The increased output in Mexico came from expansions in the Saucito and Saucito II mines, operated by Fresnillo, and the El Cubo mine, managed by Canadian firm, Endeavour Silver. A similar increase in production is predicted this year, given the on-going expansion of the San José mine, owned by Canada-based Fortuna Silver Mines.

Zacatecas is Mexico’s leading silver producing state (46.5% of total; see map), well ahead of Chihuahua (16.6%), Durango (11.3%) and Sonora (6.9%).

Silver production in Mexico, 2011. Data: INEGI. Credit: Tony Burton/Geo-Mexico

Silver production in Mexico, 2011. Data: INEGI. Credit: Tony Burton/Geo-Mexico

In Zacatecas, silver mining is especially important in the municipalities of Fresnillo (24% of total national silver production) and Mazapil (15%) as well as Chalchihuites and Sombrerete (3% each). The main silver mining municipality in Chihuahua is Santa Bárbara (3% of national total). In Durango, San Dimas and Guanaceví are each responsible for about 3% of national production, while the leading municipality for silver in Sonora is Nacozari de García (1%).

The legacy of silver

The importance of silver mining in colonial New Spain can not be over-emphasized. For instance, during colonial times nearly one third of all the silver mined in the world came from the Guanajuato region!

Even today, the cities and landscapes of many parts of central and northern Mexico reveal the historical significance of silver mining. The legacies of silver mining include not only the opulent colonial buildings in numerous major cities such as Zacatecas and Guanajuato, as well as innumerable smaller towns, but also the deforestation of huge swathes of countryside.

The landscape of states like San Luis Potosí, Zacatecas and Guanajuato was forever changed by the frenzied exploitation of their woodlands. Silver mines needed wooden ladders and pit props. The smelting of silver ore required vast quantities of firewood. Barren tracts of upland testify to the success of those early silver mines. Mining played a crucial role in the pattern of settlement and communications of most of northern Mexico. The need to transfer valuable silver bullion safely from mine to mint required the construction of faster and shorter routes (see, for example, El Camino Real or Royal Road, the spine of the colonial road system in New Spain), helping to focus the pattern of road and rail communications on a limited number of major cities.

Once workable ores ran out, smaller mining communities fell into obscurity and many became ghost towns. Some of these settlements, such as Real de Catorce and Angangueo, have enjoyed a new lease of life in recent years due to tourism.

The main town associated with silver and tourism is Taxco, the center of silversmiths and silver working in Mexico.

Mining towns described briefly previously on Geo-Mexico.com include:

Note: This is a 2016 update of a post first published in 2013.

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