Having recently been to Mammoth Cave National Park, I've been considering the caves of my own worlds, and more specifically their formation. Now while not all caves are formed from limestone, it is the most common cave material, given that water seems to so readily dissolve it. The groundwater drills into the limestone--or other stone depending on the cave system--going where water does by taking the path of least resistance, or in other words, dissolving the less dense stone first, eventually forming what we recognize as caves after the water table recedes enough for the cave network to become more readily accessible. For a more visual representation, see this short, interactive simulation.

With that in mind, I would like to be able to simulate the formation of the cave networks in my own worlds, but I don't have massive slabs of limestone on hand nor the time it takes to see how water will form caves within them, which is why I'm looking for a small-scale solution preferably meeting the following requirements:

  • Either digital or physical is fine, but physical simulations should have components that are easy enough to obtain
  • Simulation should produce three-dimensional results or a representation of three-dimensional space
  • The resulting model should be something one could easily split apart without disrupting the final results to look inside and see the final formations
  • Simulation should have some way to allow for the density of the simulated limestone to be controlled to allow for more variety in cave formations
  • The volume of the model should be able to be changed to allow for a wider area of effect on both the depth of the system and length of the tunnels overall
  • Whether models represent stalactite/stalagmite formations is not real important overall, but models that do provide that type of insight are obviously appreciated.
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    $\begingroup$ Just curious, why not just take existing cave maps like Mammouth Caves or Carlsbad Caverns or others, and just put them into your world. Not only will you have realistic caves, but you'll also have real world pictures of what they look like to describe them. Some caves even have google maps to walk through. $\endgroup$ – AndyD273 Apr 24 '18 at 19:15
  • $\begingroup$ @AndyD273 I have a network of rivers in one of my worlds and I'd like to be able to see where the caves would form and how. I had a feeling digital software would be out of the question, but physical models--probably more like school science labs--seemed like a good alternative. $\endgroup$ – Pleiades Apr 24 '18 at 20:16
  • $\begingroup$ Minecraft/Terraria? They have alghoritms for this. $\endgroup$ – The Square-Cube Law Apr 25 '18 at 3:48
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    $\begingroup$ You might build a physical simulation using water and various mineral salts but you'd need a lot of trial and error to get a good approximation of the sub-terrestrial processes. $\endgroup$ – Ash May 28 '18 at 11:18

I am unable to find software that can do what you're asking. Which isn't surprising.

Your biggest problem is that geological composition has a lot of seemingly random conditions.1 Geological density, stratification, and distribution. Chemical composition (probably down to the the square-foot level). Hydration and hydraulic effects. Heat distribution and the effects of atmospheric contamination. And that's ignoring whether or not the cave formed from sublimation, water evacuation, or lava. And that's just what I can think of off the top of my head.

And given my experience with computer modeling in the past, the software requirements you've listed are easily 75-150 million dollars worth of development depending on the input of dozens of PhDs, spectactularly trained computer engineers (many from the video game industry), and 6-10 years of development time. I wouldn't expect it to be freeware or shareware.

1They're seemingly random because it's incredibly difficult to see the "big picture" in something so complex as planetary formation and evolution.

  • $\begingroup$ I had a feeling software would be out of the question, but honestly I'd be okay with some kind of school science lab if need be. I found one that simulated what happens when water dissolves limestone using water, sugar cubes, and clay, but it didn't leave any tunnels I could look at (though that might have more to do with the sugar I use than anything else; I'm not entirely sure). $\endgroup$ – Pleiades Apr 25 '18 at 13:36
  • $\begingroup$ I found a number of kits available online, but they all appeared to have specific purposes (like showing the dissolution of limestone or being a bunch of playdough so you can form stalagmites). The problem is the complexiity of the issue. Caves form, in the case of limestone, due to the inconsistent distribution of limestone/rock densities. A model that simulated that would be... impressive. $\endgroup$ – JBH Apr 25 '18 at 16:06
  • $\begingroup$ It would be, truly, but I should probably make it clearer that I'm just looking for a way to see the tunnel formations in a model with inconsistent density. I'm ignoring a probably more than a little bit of data, but that is in essence what I'd like to accomplish. I'm wondering if there's any ant farm material one could use for something like this now actually... $\endgroup$ – Pleiades Apr 25 '18 at 16:25

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