Karstic aquifers can form very complex hydrogeological systems and 3-D mapping has been difficult, but Lidar, phased array sonar, and improved earth resistivity techniques show promise in this and in linking metadata to models. Zacatón, perhaps the Earth’s deepest cenote, has a sub-aquatic void space exceeding 7.5 x 106 cubic m3. It is the focus of this study which has created detailed 3D maps of the system. These maps include data from above and beneath the the water table and within the rock matrix to document the extent of the immense karst features and to interpret the geologic processes that formed them. Phase 1 used high resolution (20 mm) Lidar scanning of surficial features of four large cenotes. Scan locations, selected to achieve full feature coverage once registered, were established atop surface benchmarks with UTM coordinates established using GPS and Total Stations. The combined datasets form a geo-registered mesh of surface features down to water level in the cenotes.
Phase 2 conducted subsurface imaging using Earth Resistivity Imaging (ERI) geophysics. ERI identified void spaces isolated from open flow conduits. A unique travertine morphology exists in which some cenotes are dry or contain shallow lakes with flat travertine floors; some water-filled cenotes have flat floors without the cone of collapse material; and some have collapse cones. We hypothesize that the floors may have large water-filled voids beneath them. Three separate flat travertine caps were imaged: 1) La Pilita, which is partially open, exposing cap structure over a deep water-filled shaft; 2) Poza Seca, which is dry and vegetated; and 3) Tule, which contains a shallow (<1 m) lake. A fourth line was run adjacent to cenote Verde. La Pilita ERI, verified by SCUBA, documented the existence of large water-filled void zones ERI at Poza Seca showed a thin cap overlying a conductive zone extending to at least 25 m depth beneath the cap with no lower boundary of this zone evident. Verde ERI indicate a deep water-filled cavity below the 45 m deep floor.
Phase 3 acquired high-resolution imagery of the underwater voids. Because of the great depths (In 1994, Bowden descended to a record 289 meters), unmanned exploration is required to explore these systems. Supported by NASA, the DEPTHX (DEep Phreatic THermal eXplorer) robotic mapper was designed. DEPTHX conducted 3-D underwater mapping missions of 4 cenotes. These found no lateral tunnels connecting the cenotes. The cenote, El Zacatón was shown to be 319 meters deep making it is the deepest underwater vertical shaft and second deepest underwater cave in the world. Spatial geochemical data collected during DEPTHX mapping indicate that water in the 3 of the cenotes is homogeneous, but the 4th (Verde) displays typical lacustrine chemoclines. The data collected by DEPTHX data are being combined with other geologic information to study the nature of the hypogenic karst processes that formed this system.