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What are Sinkholes?

Updated on September 20, 2016
Marcy Goodfleisch profile image

Marcy lives in Austin, Texas and has written about environmental issues and conservation for more than a decade.

Cenotes Are a Type of Sinkhole

The moisture around this cenote (sinkhole) has created an oasis of ferns, tropical plants and other greenery that makes it an attractive swimming spot.
The moisture around this cenote (sinkhole) has created an oasis of ferns, tropical plants and other greenery that makes it an attractive swimming spot. | Source

How Are Sinkholes Created?

Sinkholes are frequently in the news, such as in the tragic death of a Florida man whose bedroom floor opened up and sucked him into the earth in late February of 2013.

Despite the elements of mystery and surrealism surrounding events such as the deadly sinkhole collapse in Florida, these frightening gaps in the earth's natural infrastructure are fairly common geological formations throughout various parts of the world.

Sinkholes are naturally formed 'holes' in the earth\h caused by the erosion of the rock surrounding the holes or depressions.

The erosion (also known as the karst process) happens when water is introduced into rock that is permeable and 'eats' at it, almost chemically, thereby weakening its structure.

These formations are known by several names across the globe, such as swallow holes, sinks, cenotes, swallets, shake holes or dolines.

Florida, where the horrifying event mentioned above occurred, is known for having many 'sinkholes,' which may not have been an issue hundreds of years ago (or even several decades ago), but with a huge population living on the host soil and rock, collapses such as the one that killed Jeff Bush, the man swallowed up in late February, are an increasing hazard for those who might live or work near an area near sinkhole formations.

Swimming in a Cenote Sinkhole: Not all Sinkholes are Bad

What Happens When Sinkholes Cave in?

Underwater Cave Formed by a Sinkhole

Since sinkholes create space beneath the Earth's surface, they can form caverns and caves, and can fill with water.
Since sinkholes create space beneath the Earth's surface, they can form caverns and caves, and can fill with water. | Source

How do Sinkholes Collapse?

Although sinkholes are found in many parts of the United States, Florida is known for having more of these formations than any other state in the Union.

Sinkholes are so common throughout the Sunshine State that there are special and separate insurance clauses to cover their collapse for homeowners and others who have property there. And some homes or businesses may not be insurable, due to the extreme risk in that area.

A collapse can happen when the rock surrounding the hole becomes fragile or brittle enough to cave in.

If you live near (or over) a sinkhole, there are sometimes signs of a collapse that can warn you to evacuate the area or move valuable equipment away from it (if the sink is in an open area) to avoid injury or loss.

A qualified inspector is the best source to turn to if you see signs (such as cracks in the foundation, or holes appearing in the earth) that might indicate a collapse.

Even if the signs are in your home, where you might normally feel safe, do not delay in getting an assessment, if needed, and leave the property immediately if there are signs of active collapse.

What Places Have Sinkholes?

The answer is easy - all over the world.

Okay, that's a bit too broad.

Some areas are known for having large numbers of these 'holes,' such as Papua New Guinea and Florida.

Other areas may not have the thousands of holes found in the places mentioned above, but have gigantic examples of sink formations, such as the Xiaozhai tiankeng found in Chongqing, China, which is more than 2,000 feet deep and is the largest known example in the world.

The Yucatan Peninsula, as well as other areas in Mexico, such as Queretaro, have numerous sinkhole formations (generally known as cenotes in that country).

The sinks, or cenotes, in Yucatan are thought to be formed from the impact of an enormous meteor that slammed into the earth just off of what is now the tip of that peninsula. Those sinks are now popular and scenic tourist spots and swimming holes, attracting thousands of people each year, who enjoy paddling about in the waters and relaxing under the vine-covered trees that often line the banks.

But when sinkholes swallow up homes, businesses and people, they are not so inviting and innocent.

What Do You Think? Take this poll!

Do you think sinkholes are always dangerous?

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How to Avoid a Sinkhole

If you're buying property, and if you're worried or fearful that there could be holes underneath your home, check with local building authorities to see if there are risks where you live.

Although sinkholes have been known to open up under businesses and homes, these incidents are somewhat like shark attacks - they're not hugely common, but they're widely covered in the news.

Most populous areas have already been researched for instances of sinkholes. Various factors can affect whether an area is at risk of collapse, such as the depth of topsoil (Florida has several feet of soil, which means more water can collect and be held in the soil above the rock than in areas with shallow topsoil). The type of rock underneath soil is another factor - some rock is more permeable than others.

Check with stake or local land authorities to find out the geological structure and elements of the area in which you plan to live. They will have the best information available, as well as tips on what to do if you live in an area with some risks.

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  • Marcy Goodfleisch profile image
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    Marcy Goodfleisch 23 months ago from Planet Earth

    Thanks for the kind words, Akrita Mattu - I'm glad you found the hub informative, and that you've enjoyed other hubs I've written! Sinkholes are fascinating - it seems that every few months we read about more of them showing up somewhere. Scary features of nature.

  • Akriti Mattu profile image

    Akriti Mattu 23 months ago from Shimla, India

    This is a very informative post. In fact most of your posts are informative. I read a few. Will be reading more soon. I like your writing.

    Best wishes for all your future endeavours :)

  • Marcy Goodfleisch profile image
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    Marcy Goodfleisch 2 years ago from Planet Earth

    Thanks so much, Cam - the sinkhole event in Florida sometime back prompted me to research this and write about it. Natural disasters have always fascinated me - I've written about others, too. I appreciate your reading and sharing feedback!

  • cam8510 profile image

    Chris Mills 2 years ago from Colorado Springs, CO until the end of March

    I enjoyed your article. It is very informative and the video is beautiful. Thanks for your hard work on this fine hub.

  • Marcy Goodfleisch profile image
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    Marcy Goodfleisch 2 years ago from Planet Earth

    Hi, Peg - thanks for reading and sharing your memories of sinkholes when you were in Florida. It's haunting to think of the horrific event in the bedroom - I agree - it would be helpful to know (for future events) if there was even a hint that could happen. This all makes me wonder what we are doing to the world when we add fracking to the mix.

  • PegCole17 profile image

    Peg Cole 2 years ago from Dallas, Texas

    This natural phenomenon has always been so interesting to me. When I lived in Florida we used to camp near Ocala where there were several very deep sinkholes. I loved exploring them and wondered exactly how they were formed. That poor man whose bedroom went down one - I wonder if there were any signs ahead of time. And that Corvette museum in Kentucky that went under, too. Yikes how awful.

    Voted up, awesome and interesting.

  • Marcy Goodfleisch profile image
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    Marcy Goodfleisch 2 years ago from Planet Earth

    Thanks for reading and commenting, Vellur - I agree - the lack of warning is terrifying. Sinkholes are far more common than we realize, I believe. But I am not sure they're all identified or recognized in various areas.

  • Vellur profile image

    Nithya Venkat 2 years ago from Dubai

    It would be unfortunate to buy a property which has a sinkhole in it. As you say it is better to check with the local authorities before buying. Sinkhole is pretty scary because it seems to occur all of a sudden and we will not have any time to react. Useful and informative hub, thank you for sharing.

  • Marcy Goodfleisch profile image
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    Marcy Goodfleisch 2 years ago from Planet Earth

    Martie - I didn't realize you had that many sinkholes where you live! I know they're found throughout the world, but (as you mentioned) in some areas they're more common. Yes, they scare me! Not long after I wrote this, that timeshare resort in Florida had an entire building sink into one. I had just stayed there a few months before that happened! It was a miracle nobody was hurt or killed in the event.

  • MartieCoetser profile image

    Martie Coetser 2 years ago from South Africa

    Marcy, sinkholes are quite common in our region, due to gold mines in

    dolomitic compartments. Very scary and indeed like shark attacks. Interesting and informative hubs like this raise well-needed awareness :)

  • Marcy Goodfleisch profile image
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    Marcy Goodfleisch 3 years ago from Planet Earth

    Thanks, Peggy - I've always heard Houston had drainage and stability issues, but I didn't know of the sinkhole possibilities. We have a well-known swimming hole here that sure looks like a sinkhole to me, but I don't know for sure. I'm in Austin, BTW.

  • Peggy W profile image

    Peggy Woods 3 years ago from Houston, Texas

    Hi Marcy,

    Yes, Texas has some sinkholes. Foundation problems are another problem. Just today in our neighborhood while we were taking a walk, we saw another home being repaired by a foundation repair company. Part of the cause here is the use of underground water. When it becomes depleted, the ground can settle and then we have such problems. At the rate Houston is growing, I guess we can look forward to more of such problems. Our area has recently shifted from using underground water sources to surface ones which should help. Interesting and useful hub!

  • Marcy Goodfleisch profile image
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    Marcy Goodfleisch 3 years ago from Planet Earth

    Hi, Travmaj - thank you for reading and commenting! I feel the same way you do; the sinkholes are indeed scary. I'm okay around one that has become a swimming hole, but the idea on building a home in a fragile area now terrifies me.

  • travmaj profile image

    travmaj 3 years ago from australia

    How horrific and tragic was the Florida sinkhole story - I recall discussing it and wondering about sinkholes.

    This hub is informative and interesting and clarifies that discusion.

    Thank you so much - have to say after absorbing your info - I'm glad I'm not in a sinkhole area...

  • Marcy Goodfleisch profile image
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    Marcy Goodfleisch 3 years ago from Planet Earth

    Hi, RTalloni - that is horrific, for your relatives to have lost their home to a sinkhole! The news in recent months has been eye-opening, and it's clear those subterranean structures are a mystery and dangerous.

    The idea of swimming in one gives me pause, too. I think one of our local swimming holes (in Texas) is actually a sinkhole - it has all the earmarks of it in terms of the size and shape. And I actually knew a woman who drowned there. I know what you mean about the incredibly dangerous things we did as kids . . . oh_my_gosh!!!

    Many thanks for reading and commenting!

  • RTalloni profile image

    RTalloni 3 years ago from the short journey

    Growing up in Florida I am familiar with sinkholes, large and small, and have relatives who lost their home to one.

    Had not thought of swimming in them (prefer ocean swimming). Seems like I would be wondering if a whirl of water might develop while I was poking around down there… When I was very young and very brave (naïve) I squiggled down among rocks in the cold water springs with friends and relatives, but what we did was dangerous. Looking at the vids now…well, let's just say I'm going to the ocean. :)

    Interesting look at sinkholes here. Thanks!

  • Marcy Goodfleisch profile image
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    Marcy Goodfleisch 3 years ago from Planet Earth

    Thank you, Prasetio - I agree, we have so many things to learn from our Earth!

  • prasetio30 profile image

    prasetio30 3 years ago from malang-indonesia

    Very interesting hub. I had written this phenomenon couple years ago and I think it's still good to be discussed. Mother nature give us a sign that we should take care the earth. Some of the hole under the sea look beautiful and very good to dig more about this, especially by the scientist. I love the video above. Thanks for writing and sharing with us. UP and useful :-)

    Prasetio

  • Marcy Goodfleisch profile image
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    Marcy Goodfleisch 3 years ago from Planet Earth

    Hi, Rajan -

    I'm glad you found new information here - for one thing, it means your area hasn't been affected with some of these tragedies. If you check the geology in your vicinity, you might find there are instances of at least old sink holes that have now formed pools or something. They're far more common than people realize, although some areas are more prone to them than others. Thanks for your comments!

  • rajan jolly profile image

    Rajan Singh Jolly 3 years ago from From Mumbai, presently in Jalandhar,INDIA.

    Frankly this is the first time I'm hearing about sinkholes. Maybe it's because we do not have these here. At least I haven't heard about them.

    Interesting and useful addition to my knowledge. Thanks, Marcy.

  • Marcy Goodfleisch profile image
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    Marcy Goodfleisch 3 years ago from Planet Earth

    Hi, Pinto! Thanks for your kind comments! I'm glad you learned from the information here!

  • Marcy Goodfleisch profile image
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    Marcy Goodfleisch 3 years ago from Planet Earth

    Hi, Sunshine! I'm glad your area is (from what we know) not having these problems. I admit, I'd be very concerned if I lived in an area prone to collapse. Thanks for dropping by, reading and commenting!

  • Marcy Goodfleisch profile image
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    Marcy Goodfleisch 3 years ago from Planet Earth

    Hi, Grace - yes, there so so many unusual features to our planet. When a area such as those mentioned here gets urbanized, a lot can happen. So glad you enjoyed the hub!

  • Marcy Goodfleisch profile image
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    Marcy Goodfleisch 3 years ago from Planet Earth

    Hi, Mary - thanks for reading and sharing! I've wondered about the long term stability of places like Florida - I certainly hope there are ways to monitor and, where possible, prevent further deaths when collapses are expected.

  • pinto2011 profile image

    Subhas 3 years ago from New Delhi, India

    Hi Marcy you have really enriched my knowledge through this hub.

  • Sunshine625 profile image

    Linda Bilyeu 3 years ago from Orlando, FL

    That poor guy, one second he was laying in bed and the next he was sucked up into the abyss. Sinkholes are scary and there is no warning. Where I live in Orlando there's never been a sinkhole, at least not that I know of. I wouldn't want to find out though!

  • Grace-Wolf-30 profile image

    Grace-Wolf-30 3 years ago from England

    This is a very interesting hub. I had no idea this phenomena existed. Thank you for sharing it, it is something worth knowing about.

  • mary615 profile image

    Mary Hyatt 3 years ago from Florida

    I am a Florida resident and read of these sinkholes all the time. My Hubby grew up in Fl. and he said that one of these days, the whole state will just "fall off" into the ocean!

    I enjoyed reading about sinkholes. Voted UP, and shared.

  • Marcy Goodfleisch profile image
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    Marcy Goodfleisch 4 years ago from Planet Earth

    Hi, Pstraubie48 - I saw that news story, and it was truly heartbreaking. I can't imagine what that family went through. Stay safe - I know there are still many sinkholes in your area.

  • pstraubie48 profile image

    Patricia Scott 4 years ago from sunny Florida

    Hi

    This was quite informative. Others need to know about these unwanted holes. I live in Florida so have been too near where they occur.

    The most recent one happened the very night I happened to be in the little town where one opened up and swallowed bed and human. It was heart wrenching to see his brother telling of it. He said he was reaching in to try to get him, to no avail, and was forced to leave by those first responders for fear he would be swallowed up too. It was most unusual as you could not see the sink hole. The house stood over it. Sinkholes in that part of Florida are not uncommon.

    Thank you for sharing this information. Sending Angels your way this morning :) ps

  • Marcy Goodfleisch profile image
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    Marcy Goodfleisch 4 years ago from Planet Earth

    Oh, that would be a stressful way to live, bravewarrior - I think there are many areas of the USA (and the world) that were never meant to support the level of civilization that has settled on them. California is one such fragile area, and probably any other coastal state that has become a tourist destination (such as Florida) has similar problems.

    Thanks for reading and commenting - and say safe (stay away from the sinkholes!).

  • bravewarrior profile image

    Shauna L Bowling 4 years ago from Central Florida

    Marcy, I live in Florida and we hear of sink holes all the time. I chalk it up to building on soft ground that cannot stand the pressure of a cinder block home. Volusia County, which is where our most populated beach communities lie, are where the occurances happen the most. We need to stop building! Florida's coastline is diminishing at an appalling rate. Before long, Florida will either separate from the continent or sink!

  • Marcy Goodfleisch profile image
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    Marcy Goodfleisch 4 years ago from Planet Earth

    Hi, DDE - yes, along with flood plains, unstable ground and areas prone to hurricanes or other rising waters, we need to figure out what's far under our feet before we build. Thanks for your comments!

  • DDE profile image

    Devika Primić 4 years ago from Dubrovnik, Croatia

    Well-advised about sinkholes, the necessary precautions must be carefully considered before building homes.

  • Marcy Goodfleisch profile image
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    Marcy Goodfleisch 4 years ago from Planet Earth

    Hi, Ruchira - such a sad event, wasn't it? Thanks for your comments here - I appreciate it!

  • Ruchira profile image

    Ruchira 4 years ago from United States

    Actually did not know until the poor guy got swallowed into it.

    Useful hub, Marcy.

  • Marcy Goodfleisch profile image
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    Marcy Goodfleisch 4 years ago from Planet Earth

    Thanks, Terrilynn - yes, that was a horrible and terrifying news story. These formations are a mystery to many - so glad you found the information here useful, and thank you for sharing!

  • torrilynn profile image

    torrilynn 4 years ago

    Hi MarcyGoodfleisch,

    thanks for this hub and for sharing exactly what

    sinkholes are. I've learned about a man recently being

    swallowed up by one. Quite tragic actually. thanks again.

    Voted up and shared.

  • Marcy Goodfleisch profile image
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    Marcy Goodfleisch 4 years ago from Planet Earth

    They are indeed scary, drbj - the ones we don't anticipate and that collapse are horrifying. And yet, areas with depressions made from sink holes use them for recreation! Thanks so much for commenting here!

  • drbj profile image

    drbj and sherry 4 years ago from south Florida

    Sinkholes are scary, Marcy, and it seems that often people who are at risk are not even aware of the problem. Much of Florida is made up of topsoil with clay underneath and limestone beneath that. The limestone is porous (like Swiss cheese) and particularly susceptible to water erosion.

  • Marcy Goodfleisch profile image
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    Marcy Goodfleisch 4 years ago from Planet Earth

    I agree, Billy - these are both beautiful and treacherous, depending on the circumstances. Apparently, Texas is at risk of them as well, but not as severely as in Florida. My heart breaks for the family of that poor man who died last week. Thanks for reading and commenting!

  • billybuc profile image

    Bill Holland 4 years ago from Olympia, WA

    Very dangerous occurrences. Fortunately we do not see them here in my state, but I have seen them on the news and they are unbelievable.

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