25 acre wide sinkhole in Bayou Come, Louisiana

Swallow hole, doline, swallet, cenotes all refer to the same thing – sinkhole. Sinkholes have been around forever. They can be found all over the earth and recently large ones have opened up in Guatemala, Florida and China. They are the sinking of an area of the earth’s surface forming a hole. They can vary greatly in size, from the area of multiple footballs fields to the size just big enough to swallow a car. Sizes have been reported from 3.3 feet to 980 feet in diameter and depth. They can appear gradually or suddenly.

According to the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection, sometimes they develop naturally through weathering. Some activities engaged in by humans can have a negative affect on sinkholes, causing them to be more common or abrupt. Heavy construction, drain off ponds, broken underground sewer and water pipes all can cause changes in land surface which alter ground water drainage.

This especially occurs in areas with “Karst topography” where rocks wear faster due to more water running through them, like in salt beds. These areas are dominated by sinkholes, internal drainage and caves.  Sub surface water helps keep surface soil in place, so any natural or man-made alteration of ground water can create a problem.Extended droughts, heavy rainfall or flooding cause water around rocks to move and  shift, creating a void and leaving openings for soil to drain away, causing a bigger void and eventually a collapse creating a sinkhole.

Urban development adds more weight to the surface layer, potentially speeding up the collapse of a sinkhole. Man made constructions that show stress and crack may provide clues as to where a sinkhole might show up. In China, a sinkhole swallowed an entire building complex in Guangzhou and may have been triggered by the construction of an underground metro line nearby.

In America, sinkholes are most likely to occur in Florida, Texas, Alabama, Missouri, Kentucky and Pennsylvania, according to US Geological Surveys, but seem to be cropping up, or down, all over.  35% to 40%  of land in the US has rock beneath the surface that is easily soluble in water. In Louisiana, at Bayou Come, a naturally occurring sinkhole that developed from an underground salt deposit collapsed and grew from one to 25 acres in 12 months. It is being called the biggest on going industrial disaster in the US that “you may not have heard of”.

In Florida, a famous sinkhole, 350 feet by 75 feet, opened up in Winter  Park, in May of 1981.It swallowed a car dealership, five porches, parts of two separate streets and an Olympic size pool. This episode led to the creation of a research institute at the University of Central Florida to investigate causes and the predictability of sinkholes.

Penn State capital has been suffering from a rash of monster sinkholes being blamed on leaky, century old underground water pipes. Not long ago, a sinkhole formed in Ohio swallowing four footballs in just minutes. Louisiana Assumption Parish declared a state of emergency due to an 800 feet in diameter sinkhole that is still growing and has caused 350 residents to be evacuated. Sept. 2008, a sinkhole collapsed in a salt dome in Daisette, Texas. A 22 ton fire engine plunged into a sinkhole in Sept. 2009 in Valley Village, California.  Sept. 2012 Ottawa sinkhole swallowed a car and has now grown to the size of an Olympic pool. Fortunately, the driver escaped.

Three separate catastrophes in Florida played a part in 2013 being named “The Year of the Sinkhole”. In Tampa, one formed under 36 year old Jeffrey Bush’s home causing his tragic death while another in Clermont, heavily damaged a tourist villa.  In Washington, May 2013, a chunk  of Whidbey Island, off the coast of Washington slid into the water, forcing 34 homes to evacuated. In Chevy Chase, Maryland on Friendship Blvd. a car took a seat in a sinkhole caused by a broken water main. Also, in New Jersey and Arizona, sinkholes have caused road closures.

Most recently, a 40 foot by 25 foot deep sinkhole devoured 8 corvettes in the Skydome area of the  National Corvette Museum in Kentucky. Also, in New Jersey and Arizona, sinkholes have caused rode closures.

In the past, sinkholes were used a disposal sites. The ancient Maya tribe used them as sacrificial sites and storage areas. Many tourists enjoy cave diving in some of the world’s largest sinkholes. In Southern Italy, Guatemala, Mexico there are sinkholes that look like small lakes. There are also sinkholes under water, like the Great Blue Hole off the coast of Belize. The world’s largest sinkhole is in Guatemala.

In fact, giant holes are opening up all over the earth, swallowing homes, buildings and roads and sometimes people. In Texas, it is good to be aware but not overly concerned, unless you start to see “Sinkhole Repair Ads” springing up.