Inside the Science of Sinkholes

Another day, another sinkhole in Florida.

ByAlyssa Newcomb
November 11, 2014, 1:30 PM

— -- Another day, another sinkhole. The latest one to take place is in Florida.

A family had minutes to escape before what appeared to be a sinkhole swallowed up a car and driveway.

Other harrowing images of sinkholes have emerged this year -- including several cars that were engulfed at the National Corvette Museum in Kentucky others as far away as Crimea and Siberia.

Jerry Black, a senior geologist at Geo Hazards, a Florida based consulting group, said sink holes are caused by a "little bit of both mother nature and human development."

Here are four answers to some of the most common questions about the science of sinkholes:

How Does A Sinkhole Form?

A sinkhole is most common when the bedrock is limestone, carbonate rock, salt beds or other rocks that can be dissolved by water, according to the United States Geological Survey.

As the groundwater dissolves the carbonate bedrock, gaps form beneath the surface. Sinkholes happen when the spaces below the ground get too wide, causing the land to collapse into the earth -- eating roads, homes, cars and anything else in its way.

Sinkholes can be anywhere from one to 100 feet deep, according to the USGS.

Corvettes Collapse Into Giant Sinkhole
In this image provided by the National Corvette Museum shows several cars that collapsed into a sinkhole, Feb. 12, 2014, in Bowling Green, Ky. The museum said a total of eight cars were damaged when a sinkhole opened up early Wednesday morning inside the museum.
National Corvette Museum, HO/AP Photo

Why are there so many sinkholes in Florida?

Florida sits on several thousand feet of limestone, which coupled with its extensive groundwater system and the strain put on it from a growing population, creates the perfect storm to cause numerous sinkholes every year.

Other states that are also especially susceptible to sinkholes are Texas, Alabama, Missouri, Kentucky, Tennessee and Pennsylvania, Black said.

Pennsylvania Sinkhole Swallows Car
A man looks at a car as it falls into a sinkhole in Ross Township, near Pittsburgh, Pa., on Aug. 12, 2014. A woman was pulled from the car and hospitalized after the car fell into the sinkhole that opened up in a parking lot, officials said.
Courtesy Roxanne Oglesby/Reuters

How Can I Tell If A Sinkhole Is Developing?

Most sinkholes are isolated events and form gradually over time. Black said the "sensationalistic" sinkholes that have swallowed homes and even killed one Florida resident, are incredibly rare.

"You can see subtle depressions at the surface," he said. "For the ones that happen overnight there is not that much time or any kind of warning before they happen."

Crimean Sinkhole Captures a Car
A car lies in a sinkhole in the road outside the Crimean capital of Simferopol, Sept. 28, 2014.
Reuters

Can humans cause sinkholes?

Yes! Anytime when natural water drainage patterns are changed, it's feasible sinkholes can develop.

"Here in Florida, our groundwater is our major source of water for all municipalities," Black said. "There has been times that over pumping and drawing down the water table has created sinkholes."

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