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Living (and Sometimes Dying) with Karst

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.


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The earth opened up and swallowed Jeff Bush last week. Normally, I wouldn’t use that phrase: people say it all the time when the earth has done no such thing. But in this case, it fits. A man went to his bedroom. The land fell away beneath him, and collapsed in on him, and he died.

We like to make sense of these events. What happened to Jeff Bush was random and rare, but the fact of the earth falling away beneath us is all too common. In the United States alone, over a fifth of the place is karst country, where sinkholes can happen, and often do. If we zoom in on Florida, we notice something rather striking: pretty much all of it is susceptible to sinkholes.

Sinkhole Zones in Florida, from Florida Geological Survey Map Series No. 110. The whole state is pretty much sinkhole country: the only question is what sort of sinkhole you'll end up with. Image via Floriday Geological Survey Poster No. 11.

Sinkhole Zones in Florida, from Florida Geological Survey Map Series No. 110. The whole state is pretty much sinkhole country: the only question is what sort of sinkhole you'll end up with. Image via Floriday Geological Survey Poster No. 11.

What is karst? In simple terms, it’s what you end up with after rocks spend a lot of time dissolving. It’s full of caves and sinkholes, solution valleys and underground streams. It’s quite common in places where the bedrock is mostly limestone, dolomite, or gypsum. It can even happen in places where marble and salt (yes, salt) are major constituents. Anything that can be dissolved by weak carbonic acid can become karst country. And what’s weak carbonic acid? Water that’s mixed with carbon dioxide, simply. You can watch it at work in old limestone statues adorning exposed areas on buildings. This gargoyle once had a less-melty face, for instance: acid rain that wouldn’t hurt a human plays merry hell with the calcite in limestone.

 

Acid rain damaged gargoyle. Image and caption courtesy Nino Barbieri via Wikimedia Commons.

Acid rain damaged gargoyle. Image and caption courtesy Nino Barbieri via Wikimedia Commons.

Now imagine that happening on a huge scale to the landscape at large, and you’ve got an idea what causes karst. Then keep in mind that pretty much all of Florida is limestone, subject to dissolution.

What we see of Florida is just part of an enormous carbonate platform that developed over millions of years. When the bit of metamorphic rock that would become Florida’s basement rifted off of proto-Africa in the time of Pangea, a basin formed as the baby Atlantic Ocean was born. That’s where the Florida Platform began to form: in shallow, warm seas filled with coral reefs and algae with calcium carbonate skeletons, living happily under the sun, producing those calcium carbonate bits that built up incrementally as they died. And this went on for ages, right up through the Paleogene, the geologic age after the death of the dinosaurs. There are cliffs bounding the Florida Platform that are nearly 1,828 meters (6,000 feet) high, beneath the waters of the Gulf of Mexico. That immense carbonate mass may be more than 6,096 meters (20,000 feet) deep. That’s a huge amount of potential karst.

The carbonate Florida Platform, of which the state of Florida is only an exposed bit. Figure from Tihansky 1999.

The carbonate Florida Platform, of which the state of Florida is only an exposed bit. Figure from Tihansky 1999.

Millions of years into the Paleogene, the Appalachians were uplifted in one of the occasional orogenies that tend to happen when plates are moving around, and the material eroded off of them was carried down by longshore currents and rivers. Those sediments included the quartz sands that became Florida’s famous beaches, and the silts and clays that form a relatively thin cover to the limestone bedrock.

And that limestone has been subject to dissolution by slightly acidic ground- and rain-water for millions of years. It’s lousy with caves, crevices, underground passages, and other hollow bits. That spells sinkholes.

Type and thickness of materials mantling the carbonate units vary significantly in west-central Florida. Sinkhole occurrence throughout the region provides evidence of enhanced porisity at depth (from Tihansky, 1999). Image and caption courtesy USGS.

Type and thickness of materials mantling the carbonate units vary significantly in west-central Florida. Sinkhole occurrence throughout the region provides evidence of enhanced porisity at depth (from Tihansky, 1999). Image and caption courtesy USGS.

Sinkholes come in a variety of shapes, sizes and mechanisms of formation, but the one that opened beneath Jeff Bush’s bedroom was most likely a cover-collapse sinkhole. Picture a cave, a void in the limestone, that’s been growing for some time as weakly acidic water gradually eats the stone away. Gravity works on hollow spaces: collapse is natural. The ceiling becomes too weak to stand, and caves in. Sometimes, if the overlying soil is 9-61 meters (30-200 feet) thick, and made mainly of clay, the ground doesn’t open right away. The sturdy clay bridges the gap. But it’s only so strong, and things happen. Perhaps it gets too wet, or, oddly enough, too dry – when it dries, it crumbles. And then it comes down, with whatever’s grown or been built atop it, in a matter of minutes or hours.

 

Cover-collapse sinkholes may develop abruptly (over a period of hours) and cause catastrophic damages. They occur where the covering sediments contain a significant amount of clay. Image and caption courtesy USGS.

Cover-collapse sinkholes may develop abruptly (over a period of hours) and cause catastrophic damages. They occur where the covering sediments contain a significant amount of clay. Image and caption courtesy USGS.

And this is what we have to live with, in karst areas: the possibility that solid land isn’t so solid as we think, and may give way with little warning, swallowing homes and vehicles and crops and, in extremely rare instances, people.

Sinkhole at Winter Park Florida. This sinkhole occurred in 1981, in the time span of one day. The city of Winter Park stabilized and sealed the sinkhole, converting it into an urban lake. This form of subsidence occurs when carbonate layers that lie below the surface dissolve. When the weight of the overlying ground becomes too great, or the dissolved area too large, the surface collapses into the void. These features occur in what is known as karst topography which is common in Florida, Kentucky, Missouri, Pennsylvania, and Tennessee and also occurs in many other places around the world. Image and caption courtesy A. S. Navoy, USGS.

Sinkhole at Winter Park Florida. This sinkhole occurred in 1981, in the time span of one day. The city of Winter Park stabilized and sealed the sinkhole, converting it into an urban lake. This form of subsidence occurs when carbonate layers that lie below the surface dissolve. When the weight of the overlying ground becomes too great, or the dissolved area too large, the surface collapses into the void. These features occur in what is known as karst topography which is common in Florida, Kentucky, Missouri, Pennsylvania, and Tennessee and also occurs in many other places around the world. Image and caption courtesy A. S. Navoy, USGS.

We can mitigate the hazard. We know some of the things that cause sinkholes to form. Pumping out too much groundwater is a common one: messing about with the drainage and surface water is another. Drilling wells, dewatering foundations, erecting buildings; leaky pipes or septic tanks, drainage ditches, impoundment of surface water in ponds  – all of these things can lead to sinkholes. So it pays to pay attention, and be very careful indeed. Before an area is built upon, geologists should have a thorough look, and their assessments be taken seriously. Water tables shouldn’t be pumped below a certain minimum depth, dependent upon the area, to maintain the buoyant support holding up the overlying land. And if you’re living in karst country, pay attention to these warning signs:

  • Fresh exposures on fence posts, foundations and trees that result when the ground sinks.
  • Slumping, sagging or slanting fence posts, trees or other objects; doors and windows that fail to close properly.
  • Ponding — small ponds of rainfall forming where water has not collected before.
  • Wilting of small, circular areas of vegetation because the moisture that normally supports vegetation in the area is draining into the sinkhole that is developing below the surface.
  • Turbidity in water in nearby wells during early stages of sinkhole development.
  • Structural cracks in walls, floors and pavement; cracks in the ground surface.
  • Sudden draining of a pond or creek.
  • Small conical holes that appear in the ground over a relatively short period of time.

(Shamelessly filched from the Southwest Florida Water Management District’s brochure on sinkholes and the small but eminently useful book Living with Karst, both of which you should procure for yourself if you live in karst country.)

Sinkhole in Winter Park, Florida that has damaged buildings, trees and road. Image courtesy USGS.

Sinkhole in Winter Park, Florida that has damaged buildings, trees and road. Image courtesy USGS.

There are ways to fix sinkholes so that they don’t continue to grow and threaten other structures, but if you have a sinkhole on your property, don’t attempt to fill it on your own. Hire a professional.

I wish I could tell you that sinkholes were a freak of nature that rarely happen, but as we encroach on karst country and mess about with it without due care, they’re going to become more frequent. As areas get built up, they’ll affect people more, just like any other natural process that people manage to accelerate. That means we’ll have to understand them, and work to mitigate them. There are ways of living with karst, never perfectly, but better than barging in on it without understanding its challenges.

Hopefully, with due care and attention, and a little bit of luck, we can prevent the earth from swallowing people without warning.

 

Resources:

Florida Department of Environmental Protection Geology Topics: Sinkholes.

Southwest Florida Water Management District: Sinkholes.

Maps, ETC: Florida Sinkhole Maps.

Veni, George et al (2001): Living with Karst: A Fragile Foundation. An excellent book on the geology and hydrology of karst regions, complete with sound suggestion on hazard mitigation. It’s written in clear, concise language with technical terms clearly explained. I recommend it for anyone living in karst country.

 

How You Can Help:

Hillsborough County Fire Fighters Benevolent Relief Fund - Sinkhole Incident. Use the Donate button, write “Sinkhole Incident” in the comments.

 

News Articles:

A loud crash, then nothing: Sinkhole swallows Florida man.

Florida Sinkhole So Dangerous Rescuers Can’t Search For Missing Man.

All walls razed at Florida home where sinkhole devoured man.

Florida sinkhole: Neighboring home ‘compromised.’

Work continues, future uncertain for sinkhole site.

Second sinkhole appears in Tampa area.

Memorable Florida Sinkholes (PHOTOS).

‘Sinkhole season’ has only just begun in Florida – an excellent article on the general topic.

 

References:

Arthur, J.D. et al (1994): Florida’s Global Wandering Through the Geological Eras. Florida Geological Survey Special Publication No. 35: Florida’s Geological History and Geological Resources.

Nate (2013): Sinkholes – Where and Why They Form. Adventures in Geology.

Perlman, Howard: Sinkholes. The USGS Water Science School.

Rupert, Frank and Spencer, Steve (2004): Florida’s Sinkholes. Floriday Geological Survey Poster No. 11.

Tihansky, Ann B. (1999): Sinkholes, West-Central Florida. p. 121-140, in Galloway, Devin, Jones, D.R., and Ingebritsen, S.E., 1999, Land Subsidence in the United States: USGS Circular 1182.

Dana Hunter About the Author: Dana Hunter is a science blogger, SF writer, and geology addict whose home away from SciAm is En Tequila Es Verdad. Follow her on Twitter: @dhunterauthor. Follow on Twitter @dhunterauthor.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.





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  1. 1. Malachite 6:56 am 03/7/2013

    Informative and interesting, thank you.

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  2. 2. greg_t_laden 10:03 am 03/7/2013

    This is a problem that will probably grow in the future in Minneapolis and surrounding areas. So far there have been few serious sinkhole events (one five days ago closed a heavily used road), but the landscape is karstic. South Minneapolis has a large low density urban residential area with many small parks. Almost every park is down hill … a low spot. Often a roundish low spot. Larger low spots have ponds in them, and some are glacial features, but most are probably karst features. Residential structures along streets that end in a park tend to have porches peeling off in one direction, tilting fences, or mild tilts to the main structures of the homes. During early development, people had the sense to not build on the obvious sinks, putting parks there instead, but the shifts evident from the nearby dwellings are giving us a clue that some of these sinks are expanding, very slowly.

    I suppose we should tie line levels onto the swing sets and check then now and then!

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  3. 3. G. Karst 12:26 pm 03/7/2013

    Living (and Sometimes Dying) with Karst

    I must say, your headline gave me quite a start. For a second I thought perhaps you had acquired my combat record. :) GK

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  4. 4. SAReadersince67 12:58 pm 03/7/2013

    A very interesting article and some aspects of Florida geology I did not fully appreciate.

    Another interesting example of Karst formations is “Lake on the Mountain” near Picton, Prince Edward County, Ontario and WSW of Kingston. Lake on the Mountain is a Karst cavity long ago filled with water to form a lake. The visitor to this lake can stand at its North end and look further North and East to an arm of the Bay of Quinte of Lake Ontario; but the surface of the lake is well above the level of the Bay and Lake Ontario which seem far below the steep cliff of the limestone plateau. Once said to be bottomless, Lake on the Mountain, is a deep lake considering how it “hangs” in its stone basin above the surrounding waters of the Bay and Lake. It had cultural significance to the aboriginal peoples. Its historical importance for Canadians is also enhanced because just at the base of the cliff near by is still today a structure which was a grist mill operated in the mid 1800s by the MacDonald family who’s son John A. MacDonald was Canada’s first Prime Minister and Father of Confederation. In those days, the natural head of water of the Lake above was channeled over the cliff to drive a “carding mill” part way down, and then the mill to grind grain at the bottom. There was a wharf for vessels to come and go from the mill and still today there is a the Glenora Ferry terminal in operation. Also of interest are glaciated landscapes of the area (including many terminal moraines, drumlins and unconsolidated tills and complex soils and subsoils.) And then to the North, the Canadian shield can be found at the surface in places, along a margin running like a wedge to near Kingston. This ancient rock can be easily seen at a rock cut made during the construction of Hwy 401 outside Kingston, which is near where the Rideau canal comes into Lake Ontario, a canal once of military importance, but now a recreational waterway, with many 19th Century aspects preserved. Karst topography seems to create interesting human settlement patterns. (I leave it to readers to look up the depth and surface elevation of Lake on the Mountain.)

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  5. 5. suvrat 11:08 pm 03/17/2013

    great article..those sinkholes pose another danger.. of groundwater contamination.. here is a post on that.. http://www.suvratk.blogspot.in/2013/03/florida-sinkholes-also-pose-more-subtle.html

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