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A soda straw (or simply straw) is a speleothem in the form of a hollow mineral cylindrical tube. They are also known as tubular stalactites. Soda straws grow in places where water leaches slowly through cracks in rock, such as on the roofs of caves. Soda straws in caves rarely grow more than a few millimetres a year, but may only average just a tenth of a millimetre per year. A soda straw can turn into a stalactite if the hole at the bottom is blocked, or if the water begins flowing on the outside surface of the hollow tube.
These tubes form when calcium carbonate or calcium sulfate dissolved in the water comes out of solution and is deposited. In soda straws, as each drop hovers at the tip, it deposits a ring of mineral at its edge. It then falls and a new drop takes its place. Each successive drop of water deposits a little more mineral before falling, and eventually a tube is built up. Stalagmites or flowstone may form where the water drops hit the cave floor.
Soda straws are some of the most fragile of speleothems. Like helictites, they can be easily crushed or broken by the slightest touch. Because of this, soda straws are rarely seen within arms' reach in show caves or others with unrestricted access. When left alone, soda straws have been known to grow up to 9 metres (30 feet) long. Kartchner Caverns in southern Arizona has well-preserved soda straws because of its recent discovery in 1974 and highly regulated traffic.
Outside the cave environment
Straws can also form beneath man-made structures and grow significantly faster than in the natural cave environment. These forms are classified as calthemites as opposed to the speleothems growing in natural environments. Their chemistry differs from those found in caves because they are derived from concrete, lime, mortar or other calcareous material. Calthemite soda straws have been recorded as growing up to 2mm per day in length, which is much faster than Speleothem soda straw growth rates.
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