Karstology began in the Slovenian Karst

The Škocjan Caves. Photo: Jakše-Jeršič

Geography abounds with examples of particular landscape types taking their names from particular natural phenomena. Thus various branches of science owe their names to a specific phenomenon or form – volcanology, for example, being named after the volcano, itself derived from Vulcanus (the Roman god of fire). However, there is only one such case where the name of a branch of science is entirely based on a landscape – karstology. The Slovenian limestone plateau known as Kras – the Karst in English – gave its name to a typical landscape formed on carbonate rock, and it is indeed here that karstology began to develop.

Towards the end of the 2nd century BC, the Romans conquered the Kingdom of the Histri, which included the Karst. The plateau’s name then became known through its Latinised form, Carsus. The base of the name was karus, with its root "kar", which meant a stone or rock. The Slovenian form arose in the 9th century at the latest, that is at a time when any proto-Slovene "r" or "l" placed between a vowel and a consonant changed its place to precede a vowel: Kars(u) was thus transformed into Kras. 

The name Kras started to appear more often in written documents in the Middle Ages. Professional research, particularly by geologists and geographers, which included description of the Karst and other limestone regions, began in the middle of 19th century. In this period, the name Karst was slowly assumed as a general concept and became a technical term; along with the exploration of specific karst formations, relevant notions and terms were expressed in Slovene to designate typical karst formations. An example of this is Rosthorn’s notes from 1847 concerning his geological tour in Istria, where he claims to have himself explored 1,000 Karst dolines (sinkholes). The term "doline" has thus become an internationally recognised term for a specific karstic surface formation.

Below are other examples of Slovene words used in international terminology related to the study of karstic landscapes.

Doline: A basin or funnel-shaped hollow in limestone, ranging in diameter from a few metres up to a kilometre and in depth from a few to several hundred metres. Some dolines are gentle grassy hollows; others are rocky, cliff-edged basins. 

Jama: A vertical or steeply inclined shaft in limestone, known as an abime or aven in French and as a pothole in English. Also used for any cave. 

Ponor: A hole or opening in the bottom or side of a depression where a surface stream or lake flows either partially or completely underground into the karst groundwater system 

Polje: A large, flat-bedded depression in karst limestone, whose long axis is developed parallel to major structural trends and can reach tens of kilometres in length. Superficial deposits tend to accumulate on the bed. Drainage may be by either surface watercourses (when the polje is said to be open) or swallow holes (a "closed" polje). The Dinaric Karst has many poljes; the Livansko polje is around 60 km long and 7 km wide. The word is Slovene for "field", reflecting the agricultural value of the alluvial polje bed soils. 

The name of the Karst plateau has not only given rise to the international term "karst" but resulted, via derivatives or directly, in many popular expressions, which more or less faithfully follow the original. Thus speaking about the Karst and its international dimension, this involves not only the natural heritage but also the cultural, including the use of a term which has spread throughout the world.

Photo: Darinka Mladenovič

The Karst is a landscape formed from the dissolution of soluble rocks including limestone, dolomite and gypsum. It is characterised by sinkholes, caves and underground drainage systems. Nearly all surface karst features are formed by internal drainage, subsidence and collapse triggered by the development of underlying caves.

Research into karst phenomena actually began in Slovenia, where it has also achieved the highest level of development. 

In 1689, Janez Vajkard Valvasor, a pioneer of the study of karst phenomena in Slovenia and a fellow of London’s Royal Society for Improving Natural Knowledge, introduced the word "karst" to European scholars, describing the phenomenon of underground flows of rivers in his account of Lake Cerknica.

After the discovery of the inner part of the Postojna Cave in 1818, the district engineer Schaffenrath and his colleague Hochenwart prepared a guide to the cave. The introduction to the guide contains a statement – the first ever – that "karst is not only in the Karst region, but this is a strip of land that stretches from the Udine district up to the Greek island of Cephalonia". Today we know that almost half of Slovenia’s territory lies on karst terrain, while the largest karst area in Europe is the Dinaric karst region in the Balkan Peninsula. The largest karst areas in the world are in China (600,000 km²) and Australia (500,000 km²). Due to the aforementioned beginnings of karst research in Slovenia, the Slovenian Karst has been established as the basic karst type, i.e. the reference landscape for other karst areas around the world.

Slovenia has the world’s largest risk of sinkholes. The world’s largest limestone karst area is Australia’s Nullarbor Plain.

The development of karstology

The largest karstic research institute in the world is the Karst Research Institute in Postojna, Slovenia. The carefully selected research team, consisting of experts in the fields of geography, geology, biology, chemistry and physics, cover the most important areas of karstology. The institute is firmly integrated in the international karstology network and publishes the internationally renowned collection of scientific papers Acta carsologica .

Text by Nataša Bušljeta