Year around ice cave in *New Mexico*? How is this possible?

Per this slide show (slide # 6)how is this permanent ice cave possible in a relatively warm and arid environment like New Mexico?

I don’t know the full answer but the ice caves in New Mexico are at over 8000’ in altitude right on the Continental Divide so that is most of answer. That area gets snow from October to May (that part of New Mexico is known for its snow skiing after all so it may be a lot colder in general there than you had in mind). I don’t know how the ice caves manage to stay below 32F all year round but deep caves are good insulators and typically chilly no matter how hot the climate above ground. It is some combination of those factors but I do not know why there are only a few and not a lot of them.

It’s at high altitude, like Kilimanjaro, I suppose. I don’t get the insulating action of basalt bit. Any surface that sees daylight is bound to heat and cool alternately. Also, I find the the algae weird.

I remember visiting the Carlsbad Caverns in the middle of July when I was a kid, and it was very nearly freezing down there while it was burning up outside (+100 F). We had to wear jackets and I remember being able to see my breath. That’s a very deep below sea level cave network. I can easily believe one that’s up way way high never gets above freezing for very long even in the hottest parts of the year.

Earth’s ambient temperature is about 54 degrees. If you go just a few feet into a cave, the temperature drops (or rises) accordingly.

I lived in that area for a while, but never visited those caves. I agree that the altitude contributes.

The ice cave in New Mexico is a family-owned tourist attraction; here’s their website. From their FAQ page:

So the ice is slowly getting thicker over time as layers build up. And yes, the altitude is a big factor.

Frankly, I think calling it “spectacular” is a bit of an overstatement. You walk down a trail until you come to a stairway, descend into the entrance of the cave until you reach a viewing platform and there below you is a small frozen green “pond”. You can look at it but you can’t go any farther into the cave. It was kind of a letdown, I thought. The nearby Bandera Volcano (on the same property and part of the same admission price) was more impressive to me.

The cave in question is a lava tube in the malpais formation. The surrounding rock is fairly good insulation due to a foamy structure.

The cave entrance slopes downward, which allows warm air to exit, cool air to enter or be retained.

New Mexico has very low humidity which allows for very effective radiant cooling at night. The aforementioned altitude makes it even more so. The malpais is basically black, so it radiates like a mother and gets cold because the foamy nature does not allow heat to flow up from underground, so the surface gets very cold and chills the surface air which runs into the cave.

Of course the black surface gets hot in daylight, but it doesn’t run down into the cave. Further, the good insulating properties don’t allow it to store much heat a depth, so it cools quickly after sunset.

Ice can be preserved in unlikely places. There’s usually ice at the bottom of the gorge at Letchworth State Park in upstate New York in the summer, despite being exposed – the gorge itself has shadowed areas where the sun doesn’t penetrate, and the crumbly stone is a good insulator.

Polar Caves in New Hampshire gets that name from the year-round ice in the bottoms of some of the “caves” (they’re actually gaps in piled-up boulders from an early landslide). The rocks insulate the ice, and the sun never gets in, making it a natural refrigerator.

There’s a small permafrost lake near the summit of Mauna Kea in Hawaii. And I’ve skied in the Alps during August . . . on a glacier.

Global warming.


Another great example is Shoshone Ice Caves, just north of Shoshone, Idaho, kinda on western edge of Craters of Moon National Park. LOTS of lava around that part of Idaho, fwiw.

The cave itself is basically a partially-collapsed lava tube that has held ice for many, many years, and the ice is maintained by aforementioned air flows that cause the ice to form underground. I have not been there in around 15 years, and these images bring the memories of just how neat it is to walk underground in 100F temps and suddenly its rather cold and ‘lakes’ of ice are under your feet.

I have been down in the Shoshone Ice Caves, and as an eight year old, going from a bright 100 degree desert summer to dark cool cave environment was very impressive. The lava tube arching over the flat surface of the ice lit by colored floodlights, and the echoing voice of the tour guide all combined to make it a worthwhile attraction for families. Of course, I haven’t been there in over 50 years, so it may have changed.

The thing to remember about New Mexico is that it is a big place with a multiple climates. Eastern New Mexico resembles Texas, and Southwestern New Mexico resembles Arizona, but Northern New Mexico is basically like Colorado.

Your childhood may have exaggerated your memory. The main chambers of Carlsbad Caverns are 56F degrees year round.

Generally speaking, temperature in caves is rather low and very stable (essentially no day/night variation and very little summer/winter variation. When I was younger and an occasional spelunker, I was told that the usual temperature for a “normal” cave (not in altitude, etc…) in France was about 8° C (46° F). Seems about right to me (never brought a thermometer to check).

At the other end of the spectrum: when I lived in Indiana a group of friends and I used to go caving, occasionally in the winter. On one of our trips it was very cold and close to a foot of snow was on the ground. We trudged through the snow to the cave entrance and got inside where it was warm.

There was a small river flowing out of the cave and (as usual) we got wet and muddy as we explored the cave. When we were finished we had to trudge back to our vehicles in our wet muddy clothes. It was so cold our clothes were freezing solid and crunching on as we hiked back.

We always took clean dry clothes with us to change into so we wouldn’t get our vehicles muddy. If anyone had seen us, I don’t know what they would have thought of five guys stripping naked in the woods, in the bitter cold, with a foot of snow on the ground.

Those dry clothes felt pretty good though, and when we got back to our motel rooms we drank, laughed, drank, told stories, drank, and called into question each other’s caving abilities.

Lava Beds Nat’l Monument in Northern California has an ice cave. Hot as a bastard in summer on the surface, and year-round ice down in a very deep cave.

Some early P.T. Barnum types used to take people skating down there around the turn of the century before the area was a Nat’l Monument.

Really a neat, underrated little vacation spot. Nice campground and visitor center, lots of great stuff to see.