I'm often asked, "How many caves are there in Tennessee?" What they are really asking is, "how many caves do we know about in Tennessee?" or "how many caves have been described in Tennessee?" I like to say "described" as opposed to "discovered" since most caves that are newly described were likely known to historic and prehistoric people. Sometimes there is direct evidence to support this.
The simple answer to the question is to state the number of caves as were described in the last Tennessee Cave Survey data release. But a more thorough answer would note that number changes annually. Let's explore just how much it has changed, and maybe speculate on how much it will change into the future.
History of Cave Documentation in Tennessee
At some unknown date in 1973, the Tennessee Cave Survey incorporated. Based on the scattered notes I was able to determine that at that time, there were exactly 1,163 described caves in their dataset.
By 1987, the TCS was managing records for exactly 4,663 caves. That's exactly 3,500 more than when TCS incorporated 14 years earlier.
I arrived on the scene with the TCS in 2006 when we were still below 10k described caves with 9,107. It would be 2014 when we finally reported more than 10k (10,067 to be precise). In a short period of time this number grew 11,283 in 2020.