Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Northern Convergence: America's Most Dangerous Volcano, and the End of the Journey

Northern Convergence as a name for this blog series was all about the role of a convergent plate boundary in the production of the scenery of the Pacific Northwest. The compressional forces that developed as the Pacific/Farallon/Juan de Fuca plate was stuffed under the North American continent formed range after range of complexly folded and faulted mountains hundreds of miles inland.

Perhaps the most vivid effect of plate convergence is the formation of a magmatic arc, a chain of inland volcanoes and underlying magma chambers. The oceanic lithosphere carries rock and water deep into the underlying asthenosphere where the rocks are heated, and the water liberated. The water has the effect of lowering the melting point of the mantle rock and plumes of molten magma form, which start moving upwards through the continental crust. Sometimes basaltic or andesitic magmas reach the surface. In other instances, the hot magma melts some of the continental granite, forming dacite or rhyolite.
Mt. Adams from Sunrise Ridge

Volcanism is one of the intense and spectacular geologic processes one could ever hope to witness (or avoid, if you not geologically-minded, or sane). Volcanoes are capable of horrific destruction and disaster, but they also provide rich fertile soils and incredible scenery. We had now been on the road for nearly two weeks, and an important early site for our investigations was to be Mt. Garibaldi and the Black Tusk, two of the northernmost Cascade volcanoes. As I wrote previously, rain and clouds obscured our views that day, and all we ended up seeing were some old lava flows (and, it should be said, some wonderful waterfalls).
Not a volcanic eruption, but instead a wildfire. Couldn't help imagining, though.

As we drove west on our final day, volcanism loomed. We would be passing through Mt. Rainier National Park, and it is hard to think of any mountain in the world that dominates the surrounding landscape the way Rainier does (Kilaminjaro comes to mind, or Mauna Loa in Hawaii, but few others). In stark contrast to our earlier visit at Garibaldi, the skies were crystal clear and sunny.
Mt. Rainier from the west

Rainier rises to an elevation of 14,411 ft (4,392 m), just a bit short of being the highest peak in the lower 48 states, but certainly the highest in the Cascades (only Shasta comes anywhere close at 14,179 feet). Glacial erosion has ripped away hundreds of feet of rock from the summit area, so at one time it was almost surely the tallest mountain in the lower 48 (one more contender though could be the San Francisco Peaks in Arizona, another stratovolcano missing thousands of feet from the summit).
Rainier from the air

For all of its grandeur, Rainier is an incredibly dangerous mountain. It contains roughly half of all the glacial ice to be found in the lower 48 states, around a cubic mile. That much ice and a tendency to have eruptions every few hundred years is a frightening combination. Many people think (perhaps influenced by bad Hollywood movies that involve volcanoes) that lava flows are the greatest hazard from volcanoes. They are not; lava flows would hardly be expected to get off the mountain massif itself. Andesite is just too sticky to flow far before congealing.

Source: Mount Rainier - Living Safely With a Volcano in Your Backyard by Carolyn L. Driedger and William E. Scott, USGS -- from USGS fact sheet 2008-3062

The ice is another matter. A modest eruption of ash or lava could melt a vast amount of ice, mixing with the ash to form a fast-moving mudflow called a lahar. Over the history of the volcano lahars have had the greatest reach, extending as far as the Puget Sound. The cities of Tacoma, Puyallup, Sumner and others are built on lahar deposits from Rainier (see above). Tens of thousands of people along the drainages below Rainier will have a few tens of minutes to evacuate in the event of a major mudflow. For all its beauty, the mountain is a ticking time bomb. It's also probably one of the most carefully monitored mountains on the planet. I don't doubt that the slightest hint of activity will bring a flurry of evacuations.
Rainier from the air in 2007
We spent a few hours on Sunrise Ridge, but our time was limited. We had nearly completed our journey and some of our people needed to catch flights at SeaTac. We headed down the hill towards Puget Sound. We had seen many wonders on the roads that took us across the Olympic Peninsula, the ferry to Vancouver Island, a rainsoaked drive through the Sea to the Sky Highway, explorations of Banff and Yoho National Park, a sojourn among the ghosts of dinosaurs on the High Plains, and a drive home through the Rocky Mountains and the Columbia Plateau. I had gotten to know an extraordinary group of people, and a small corner of a most extraordinary country, Canada.

Sunday, October 26, 2014

The Blind Men and the Elephant, as Told by Geologists: The Channeled Scablands of Washington

A dry channel in basalt on the Columbia Plateau in central Washington (photo by Mrs. Geotripper)
I'm sure most are familiar with the parable of the blind men and the elephant. Several men investigate an elephant, but each touches a different part, so one describes it as being like a snake (the trunk), and others as a wall (the body), a rope (the tail), a fan (the ear), or a tree (the leg). The story of the Spokane Floods and Channeled Scablands of Washington is pretty much the Blind Men and the Elephant as told by a Geologist. In this retelling, the geologist is just as blind as the others, but hearing the arguments among the others, decides to investigate further. He goes back, touches the trunk, the body, the tail, the leg, and ear, mulls on it for awhile, goes back to the arguing men and says "You aren't gonna believe this guys...".
Channeled Scablands and Palouse Soils near Davenport, Washington (photo by Mrs. Geotripper)
J Harlan Bretz was a Seattle-area high school science teacher in the early 1900s, and after receiving his doctorate in 1913 he became a professor at the University of Washington and later at the University of Chicago. He was interested in glacial features of the Puget Sound, but eventually started to explore the strange landscapes of the Columbia Plateau east of the Cascades. The plateau was volcanic (horizontal basalt flows), but it was covered by a fertile silty sediment called the Palouse Soil. The soils have been used for growing vast amounts of wheat over the years.

But the soils weren't everywhere. In many places they had been stripped away, leaving barren rugged channels across the prairie. Most of the channels could not be directly related to modern rivers, but geologists used the Pleistocene ice ages as an explanation. The vast ice sheets covered and changed the landscape, and river drainages would have been altered. The outwash from the melting glaciers could account for the apparently high volumes of river flow required to form the channels.

But to Bretz, these facts weren't adding up. As topographic maps were finally becoming available for the region, he was starting to see the bigger picture of where these channels were found. He was, as it were, becoming a bit less blind. A startling hypothesis was beginning to form in his mind, an idea that would eventually transform our perception of one of the central underlying assumptions of geology.

Geology made a giant leap forward in the early 1800s when James Hutton first articulated the principle of uniformitarianism, the idea that we can use our understanding of present-day processes to interpret what has happened on the Earth in the past. The idea that things happened according to the laws of nature in the past as they do today was a powerful model for understanding how rocks and structures came to be. As the science developed over the next century, the principle hardened into a sort of orthodoxy that all geological processes were constant, and generally slow. This was in part a response to the idea of catastrophism, a model that suggested that some geologic phenomena could be explained by unusual and violent events. To many geologists this smacked of religious explanations like global floods.
Boulder field near Moses Lake (photo by Mrs. Geotripper)

The more Bretz explored the region, the more he was convinced that something extraordinary had happened here. He documented the braided pattern of the dry watercourses, eventually referring to the rugged landscape as the "Channeled Scablands". He discovered gigantic ripplemarks in some of the channels. His research led him to suggest that a series of huge floods had affected the region, floods without precedent in the modern day. His hypothesis seemed to run counter to the principle of uniformitarianism and his proposal met with fierce opposition in the geological community.

Among the weaknesses of his proposal was the source. Where had so much water (an estimated 500 cubic miles) come from? Bretz didn't have a good answer. At first.
Gigantic ripplemarks on the Camas Prairie of Montana

There were really two "blind" geologists looking at the Scablands problem. At the same time that Bretz was working on the Columbia Plateau, J.T. Pardee of the U.S. Geologic Survey was documenting evidence for a huge ice age lake that flooded canyons and plains in western Montana. It is said that he leaned over during a conference in the 1920s where geologists were eviscerating Bretz's hypothesis, and told his colleague "I know where the water came from". It was a number of years before the two put their ideas together as a comprehensive model, and it took even longer before the hypothesis gained widespread acceptance in the geological community. 

Our understanding of uniformitarianism had to change first. There was actually no logical reason to insist that geological rates were constant, slow, and unchanging. The current understanding of the principle is that the natural laws that govern any phenomena are the constant. If it looked like a river had transported boulders, then if channels existed with much larger boulders, then a much larger river was required, even if no such river exists in the present day. If a "small" crater like Meteor Crater in Arizona was produced by a fifty-foot wide meteorite, then a 130 mile wide crater like the one in the Gulf of Mexico would be produced by a much larger rock, maybe ten miles wide. Such a collision with the Earth would surely be catastrophic, and the available evidence suggests strongly that this one destroyed the dinosaurs and many other species on the planet. Catastrophism can be an acceptable explanation if it doesn't disobey the laws of physics and chemistry.

Bretz and Pardee had put together an amazing geological story: during the ice ages about 15,000 years ago, a massive glacier had blocked river drainages in Montana, producing a lake of 3,000 square miles and 500 cubic miles. In places it would have been 2,000 feet deep. On a number of occasions the dam had collapsed and the water rushed out in a catastrophic flood with a flow ten times that of the Amazon River. The floodwaters rushed across the Palouse prairie, carving the Channeled Scablands during the headlong rush to the sea. No modern historical flood comes close
Ripplemarks on the Camas Prairie in western Montana

We were on the last stages of our exploration of Canada and the Pacific Northwest, making our way back to Seattle via the Camas Prairie in western Montana and across the Channeled Scablands in central Washington. Our first stop found us on the Camas Prairie at Markle Pass.

The Camas Prairie was one of the spots where J.T. Pardee was able to document the existence of glacial Lake Missoula. Not only were there shoreline terraces carved into hillsides (below), but ripplemarks covered the valley floor. These were no normal ripples. They were as much as 30 feet high with wavelengths of 200-300 feet. The hydraulics suggest that the lake was draining fast enough to produce currents of 45 mph on the valley floor.
Ripplemarks and wavecut shorelines on the Camas Prairie in Montana

We left the Camas Prairie and drove west through canyons that had once contained a lake 2,000 feet deep. At Coeur d'Alene and Spokane we broke out into the plains of the Columbia Plateau, and our route passed through hills of Palouse Soil interspersed with jagged channels of basalt. In the afternoon we arrived at one of the most astounding results of the flood, the Dry Falls at Sun Lakes-Dry Falls State Park.
Dry Falls State Park in Washington

The park preserves a 400 foot deep valley that was carved in a matter of days by the flood that was probably 300 feet deep at this point. The waterfall was 3.5 miles wide. It is one of the most astounding pieces of evidence for the gigantic floods. I can only imagine what the scene would have been like on one of those days 15,000 years ago. A day like any other except for the rising fog in the distance and the dull roar of the coming waters.  What a sight it would have been.
Dry Falls State Park in Washington
In the early years of his research, Bretz did not have the benefit of maps or aerial photographs. Today hundreds of thousands of airline passengers pass over the Scablands yearly, often without looking out the plane window. It's quite a sight when you realize what you are seeing. I took a couple of shots a few years ago.The Palouse Soils show clearly in the upper part of the photo, while the dark basalts of the Scablands dominate the lower part. Note the small village on the lower right for a sense of scale.

Even the view from a plane fails to communicate the full size of the flood. Satellite images are the only ones that can reveal the true scale of one of the world's great catastrophic events.
Palouse Soils and Scablands Channel in central Washington

One can say that the flood seems obvious when seeing the satellite view, but Bretz and Pardee had only the ground perspective to work with, and their years of detailed research and careful documentation. They were the blind men touching the different parts of the giant elephant, but they had the insight and evidence to put the whole story together. Decades passed before their model was accepted by the geological community, but they did receive recognition in the end, and the science benefited from a new perspective on the principle of uniformitarianism. It is one of the great stories of geology.
We pulled into our motel at Moses Lake for the final night of our Northern Convergence tour of Canada and the Pacific Northwest. We still had some incredible sights ahead on our last day on the road.

Friday, October 24, 2014

Saying Good-bye to the Glaciers of Glacier National Park

The view north from Logan Pass in Glacier National Park
Make no mistake about it. Glacier National Park is one of the most spectacular parks in the United States, and indeed is one of my favorite places on planet Earth. That said, it's losing something important, and the change is profound.
How many animals are in this picture?
When I was a child, I loved museums, but I knew there was a big difference between seeing a stuffed animal in a quiet exhibit hall versus seeing one in the wild. A living, breathing animal trumps a stuffed one every time, especially if said animal is capable of killing you!
I suppose Bighorns could kill you, but I was thinking more of bears...
And that's my problem with what's happening in Glacier National Park. It's hard to put a glacier in a museum. In 1850, there were around 150 glaciers within the park boundaries. Today there are only 25. And they will be gone soon, probably by 2030. The sights we've been enjoying over the years with our visits to Glacier are disappearing at a rate that is heart-breaking. Of all of the signs of climate change, the loss of glaciers is the most vivid. Glacier will always be a beautiful park, and I will keep going back for as long as I am able, but it will soon stand as a monument to glaciation rather than a place where one can experience glaciers. And that is a shame.
Clements Mountain near Logan Pass in Glacier National Park
The changes will go beyond just the loss of glacial ice and scenery. The balance of river flows will change, both in the patterns of volume, but also temperature. Some native species depend on the year-round cold flows that emanate from glaciers. Some streams without a glacier at the source will be drying up before the next winter comes around. Habitats of all animals will be driven to higher elevations, and those at the higher altitudes in the park may find themselves without any habitat at all. We are already seeing the kinds of devastation wrought by pine borer beetles in Colorado and Wyoming. Devastating wildfires have already affected large parts of the park. We are now living the predicted changes in our global climate.
Glacially carved valley east of Logan Pass
The primary purpose of our trip was an exploration of Canada, so our visit to Glacier National Park was a short one as we drove west. We usually stay two nights and spend some time on the trails. We traveled along the spectacular Going to the Sun Highway over Logan Pass, and spent several hours exploring the alpine meadows above the pass. 
Glacier Lilies at Logan Pass
As every climatologist will tell you, there is a big difference between climate and weather. Weather is the day-to-day conditions outside ("It's cold outside") whereas climate is the long-term patterns of temperature and precipitation. Climate changes slowly over time while weather happens daily. Yet it is hard not to notice the daily extremes. When we climbed out of our vehicles at Logan Pass (6,647 feet; 2026 meters) it was 86 degrees. We were surrounded by rapidly melting snowbanks, and it was uncomfortable 86 degrees. The herd of Bighorn Sheep noticed. Some of them were laying in the snow to keep cool.
The meadows above Logan Pass in Glacier National Park
The geologic story of Glacier National Park bears some resemblance to that of Banff and Yoho National Parks in Canada, but there are big differences as well. Like the Canadian Rockies, large blocks of sedimentary rocks have been thrust eastward over softer Cretaceous rocks of the High Plains. Unlike the Canadian parks, the rocks at Glacier are older, closer to a billion years of age (Banff and Yoho sediments are around 500 million years old). They are part of a sequence of rocks called the Belt Series. They contain fossils, but they are of algal deposits called stromatolites. Multicelled creatures did not yet exist.
The peaks were high enough to stand above the vast continental ice sheets that covered the adjacent plains. The glaciers plucked and abraded the flanks of the high peaks, leaving behind outstanding examples of horns, aretes, and cirques. But unfortunately, many of the banks of ice are no longer considered glaciers, as they have shrunk and stagnated. When the chunks of ice no longer move, they aren't glaciers anymore.
Horns and aretes north of Logan Pass
We headed down the incredible west side of the Going to the Sun Highway very slowly, both to avoid plummeting to our deaths down the steep cliffs, but also to avoid running into the beautiful Rocky Mountain Goats who were licking up salt off the roadway.
We reached beautiful Lake McDonald, had a last look at the high glaciated peaks, and then headed west to Kalispell to our hotel. We would be making our way to Washington the next day on our way home. The Northern Convergence tour was reaching the final stages, but there was still much to be seen on the road ahead!
Lake McDonald at the west end of the Going to the Sun Highway.

Thursday, October 23, 2014

Partial Solar Eclipse from California (and What a Sunspot!)

Wow. Just wow. Yes there was a partial solar eclipse today that was visible across much of the country, and yes, it was pretty spectacular. But what caught my attention was the huge sunspot. It is the first time I've ever seen a sunspot with the naked eye, and it was incredible in the zoom lens. I'm told that it is more than 90,000 miles across, the width of 12 Earths. Sunspots are essentially gigantic solar storms. They look dark, but they are simply a bit less bright than the rest of the Sun's surface.
It was so big that even my camera was able to catch some detail. I had my camera on a tripod, and held a solar telescope filter over the end to catch these shots. The zoom was about 60x.
There was a lot of interest on campus, and so our astronomers and Astronomy Club had a number of scopes set out on the roof of the new Science Community Center. I wish I could have photographed one of the views through the most powerful scope. We could see the granules of the Sun's surface, and solar prominences, the arcing jets of plasma shooting out from the surface.
A great day!

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Northern Convergence: Leaving a Beautiful Country

How will we deal with the hordes of people from the U.S. trying to invade our borders?
Our trip, the Northern Convergence tour, was not over, but the time had come to cross the border back into the United States from Canada. The trip thus far had been an eye-opener. We had been exploring the "crowded" part of Canada in British Columbia and Alberta, but the land itself exuded wildness and isolation.
We were on the High Plains east of the Rocky Mountains, and had spent the morning at the Head Smashed In Buffalo Jump World Heritage Site, and as gruesome as the name was, it was a fascinating place. From there we headed south to the border crossing at Carway. We figured since it had a name that there would be a town and facilities. We got there, and there building. It was a duty-free souvenir/liquor/tobacco shop, and thank goodness, it had a restroom. Still, there were some picnic tables so we stopped for lunch and had a look around. We also wondered if the authorities were going to let us back into the United States. You never the innocent days before 9/11, we were interrogated about whether we had any "Beanie Babies" in our luggage. I laughed at the question, and the border agent got very serious: "Sir, DO YOU have any Beanie Babies?"
We were not exactly in the High Plains, as the land was broken up into swales and shallow valleys underlain by very soft Cretaceous shale deposits. The shales had been deformed and twisted by the same convergent forces that had lifted the nearby Rocky Mountains, but erosion had smoothed off the sharp edges. The land was semiarid and treeless. More verdant lands could be seen in the distance as we looked westward towards the Rocky Mountains and Waterton-Glacier International Peace Park. Glacier National Park was our next destination.
Chief Mountain was especially prominent on the western horizon. The peak is an outlier of the Rocky Mountains, an isolated upper plate of a thrust fault that had pushed the hard Paleozoic limestones over the softer Cretaceous rock. Erosion had then isolated Chief Mountain as a klippe (see the diagram below).

The mountain was a dramatic welcome back into the United States. We only had a few more days left on our journey, but there was still much to be seen. The story will continue in another post!

Monday, October 20, 2014

"Head Smashed In"... um, sounds like a great place to visit...

The High Plains have their quiet times. Sure, there are the vicious winter storms,  the days when the wind blows hard, and the summer thunderstorms. But other times the wind may be just a light breeze through the grass, maybe a hawk soaring overhead. Or a huge marmot standing guard on a sandstone outcrop. But I can also stand in this place and imagine a similar quiet day a few thousand years ago. It's quiet, but then the ground starts to tremble, and a dust cloud rises over the crest of the low hill. The birds startle and take flight, the marmot dashes for cover, and suddenly over the ridge comes a thundering herd of buffalo. They're stampeding, and the leading animals start to shift directions, but then suddenly a strange figure jumps up, yelling and waving limbs. It might be a wolf, it's hard to tell in the panic, so the herd shifts direction once more. The leaders now realize they are headed for a precipice and they try to stop, but it's too late. They go over the edge, pushed by the animals behind. They impact on the rocks and bones below, most of them dead immediately. In a moment it is over. People emerge from their hiding places and start to butcher and process the meat, bones and hides. It has been a successful hunt and they will have enough food and furs to make it through the difficult winter.
There is a seven story building in this picture. Can you see it?
The First Nations people of Canada and Native Americans of the High Plains depended on the buffalo for survival. They made use of the meat, the fat, the bones, and the hides. But anyone who has ever seen one of these immense animals knows that they would a dangerous adversary in a hunt. They can be as long as eleven feet and weigh a up to a ton. They can easily outrun a human, capable of speeds of 35 miles per hour. Though it was done, bringing one down was a difficult and dangerous proposition.
We were in southern Alberta on our Northern Convergence tour of western Canada, and were making our last stop in the country at Head Smashed In Buffalo Jump World Heritage Site. At Head Smashed In and similar localities, the geology provided a safer way to hunt the animals.
At the edge of the prairies where the mountains rise from the plains, the land is not so flat as it is further east. The convergence far to the west compressed and pushed up the Rocky Mountains. The soft Cretaceous mudstones and sandstones underlying the high plains were also pushed up into broad swales and low hills. Ice, water, and wind exploited fractures in the rock, and erosion ate away at the edges of the hills, exposing vertical cliffs of sandstone. Just such a cliff is exposed in the Porcupine Hills outside of Fort Macleod, Alberta. For at least the last 5,800 years, people have utilized the cliff here to capture and kill buffalo.
A spring emerged from the base of the cliff, providing water at the kill site (the green watercourse is visible in the picture above). The Old Man River flows in the flats below, providing sheltered sites for villages.
Tipis have become such a stereotype that some might think that most Native Americans lived in them. I groan inwardly whenever I see one at "Indian Stores" or southwest tourist traps. But the tipi at Head Smashed In was an appropriate sight. The tipis were an excellent shelter on the windy plains. They were portable, an important consideration for a nomadic people. I know of paleontologists in the region who tried to camp in modern nylon tents, but gave them up for tipis, which were more comfortable and more durable in windstorms.
The site was declared a World Heritage Site in 1981 for its archaeological value. Excavations 39 feet deep in the cliff show a complex history of buffalo hunting going back 5,800 years (two spear points show activity in the area as far back as 9,000 years. The visitor center was constructed to blend in to the landscape, and does so admirably (see the picture above). There are trails to the top of the cliff where some cairns from the hunts can still be found. A trail also loops around the base of the cliff. One of the nice surprises inside the well-designed center was a hallway lined with numerous paintings and artwork by First Nation students representing the oral histories of their culture.

About the name of the place. In the Blackfoot language it is called Estipah-skikikini-kots. Legend has it that a young man decided to watch one of the buffalo hunts from the base of the cliff. He picked a bad spot, and was crushed beneath the weight of the falling animals. The name doesn't exactly inspire confidence in the site as a destination when traveling in the region, but it is indeed a fascinating place to visit. It's full of history, but it is also a place of wide-ranging views and scenic beauty, and despite the name, serenity.

Sunday, October 19, 2014

The Sierra Nevada Underground: How does a newly discovered pristine cave look? Finding out at Black Chasm

There are caves and there are caves. Many of them were discovered long ago, and the easily accessible ones suffered grievous damage. In earlier days, cave decorations (speleothems) were broken off as souvenirs in the sadly mistaken belief that they would grow back quickly. Today's cave vandals have no such excuse. They break and destroy for sheer maliciousness. It's sad either way because caves don't recover, not in any kind of human time-frame. Their special kind of beauty is lost to us.
That's what makes a few caves extra precious. A few weeks ago, I explored Crystal Cave in Sequoia, which by virtue of being in a national park and being discovered by park personnel, was protected before catastrophic damage was done. It was developed for tourism, and millions of people have walked its passageways and yet it was protected by and large from the worst abuses.
The tour I was on yesterday was a different circumstance. Black Chasm cave near the Gold Rush town of Volcano in the Sierra Nevada Mother Lode is a privately owned cavern. It was discovered in the 1800s but the "chasm", a ninety foot deep crevice, prevented the miners from ever getting into the remote reaches of the cave. Access required technical climbing skills, and people who go through that much trouble rarely have vandalism in mind.
A decision was reached in the 1990s to develop the cave for tourism, making a total of six such caves in the Sierra Nevada: Crystal Cave, Boyden Cavern, Mercer Caverns, Moaning Cavern, California Cavern, and Black Chasm. A stairwell and boardwalk were pinned to the edge of the chasm, allowing for access to the nicely decorated room beyond. A room never despoiled by vandals, or dirtied by sooty lanterns and torches.
For those who have only seen the usual soiled yellow-brown stalactites and stalagmites, the pearly white formations are a revelation about what a cave can look like. Beautiful examples festoon the walls. But Black Chasm has an additional feature that is astounding. Stalactites on LSD!
Growing out of the walls at odd angles, and growing in totally random orientations, helictites are strange and rare cave formations. They are easily broken off, and are undoubtedly one of the first formations to disappear from caves. They are present in Black Chasm in, shall we say, large numbers. Really large numbers, enough that the cavern was granted National Natural Landmark status, a federal designation that recognizes the value of natural features on private lands, including agreements to protect the resource.
The exact process by which helictites form is not clearly known. They are most likely related to capillary action of water squeezing out of microscopic openings in small stalactites and precipitating small amounts of calcite. Because water under pressure can be squeezed upwards, the development of the helictites is not governed by gravity.
The number and variety of helictites in the Landmark Room of Black Chasm is simply stunning. I haven't been to every cave in the world, but I would not be surprised if these are some of finest examples in existence (although I am always open to correction on such issues).
Black Chasm Cave, as noted before, is a privately owned business. They are there to make a profit, but they have done a good job of protecting their cave, and I recommend a visit. They offer discounts for educational groups (they can accommodate up to 22 people at a time, so large classes would need to split into two tours). More information about the cave can be found here. Tell them Geotripper sent you!