Sinkhole Basics

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A sinkhole in front of a home in Kentucky. Image Credit: FEMA/Photo by Rob Melendez
A sinkhole in front of a home in Kentucky. Image Credit: FEMA/Photo by Rob Melendez
  • A sinkhole in front of a home in Kentucky. Image Credit: FEMA/Photo by Rob Melendez
  • Image of a sinkhole in West-central Florida Freeze Event of 2010. Image Credit: U.S. Geological Survey/Photo by Ann Tihansky

Most sinkholes occur in places where water can dissolve the rock below the surface, for example where the bedrock is limestone, salt, or gypsum. They can collapse very quickly, or slump slowly over time. Many sinkholes occur naturally, but human activities can also cause them. Over-pumping of groundwater, mining, and leaking pipes beneath roads and buildings are common causes of artificial sinkholes.

Why do sinkholes matter?

Like landslides, sinkholes can devastate small areas. Natural sinkholes are a potential threat throughout 20% of the United States.[1] Florida, Texas, Alabama, Missouri, Kentucky, Tennessee, and Pennsylvania are most sinkhole-prone because of their bedrock. Human-induced sinkholes can develop anywhere due to careless practices.

How does geoscience help?

Geoscientists study how sinkholes form in order to warn the public. They make maps identifying the types of bedrock where sinkholes are likely to form so that homeowners and public officials can understand their local risks.

References

1U.S. Geological Survey, 2013, The Science of Sinkholes, Web Feature, www2.usgs.gov/blogs/features/usgs_top_story/the-science-of-sinkholes/?from=textlink

Learn More

Introductory Resources

  • Living with Karst - A Fragile Foundation (Booklet), American Geosciences Institute
    This booklet illustrates what karst is and why karst areas are important. It also discusses karst-related environmental and engineering concerns, guidelines for living with karst, and highlights sources of additional information.

Resources for Educators

Frequently Asked Questions

2017-05-18