A sinkhole, also known as a sink, sink-hole,shakehole,swallet, swallow hole, or doline (the different terms for sinkholes are often used interchangeably), is a depression or hole in the ground caused by some form of collapse of the surface layer. Some are caused by karst processes—for example, the chemical dissolution of carbonate rocks or suffosion processes. Sinkholes may vary in size from 1 to 600 m (3.3 to 2,000 ft) both in diameter and depth, and vary in form from soil-lined bowls to bedrock-edged chasms. Sinkholes may be formed gradually or suddenly, and are found worldwide.
Sinkholes near the Dead Sea, formed when underground salt is dissolved by freshwater intrusion, due to continuing sea-level drop.
Sinkholes may capture surface drainage from running or standing water, but may also form in high and dry places in specific locations.
The formation of sinkholes involves natural processes of erosion or gradual removal of slightly soluble bedrock (such as limestone) by percolating water, the collapse of a cave roof, or a lowering of the water table. Sinkholes often form through the process of suffosion. Thus, for example, groundwater may dissolve the carbonate cement holding the sandstone particles together and then carry away the lax particles, gradually forming a void.
As the rock dissolves, spaces and caverns develop underground. These sinkholes can be dramatic, because the surface land usually stays intact until there is not enough support. Then, a sudden collapse of the land surface can occur.
Sinkhole formed by rainwater leaking through pavement and carrying soil into a ruptured sewer pipe.
Sinkholes also form from human activity, such as the rare collapse of abandoned mines and salt cavern storage in salt domes in places like Louisiana, Mississippi and Texas. More commonly, sinkholes occur in urban areas due to water main breaks or sewer collapses when old pipes give way. They can also occur from the overpumping and extraction of groundwater and subsurface fluids.
Sinkholes can also form when natural water-drainage patterns are changed and new water-diversion systems are developed. Some sinkholes form when the land surface is changed, such as when industrial and runoff-storage ponds are created; the substantial weight of the new material can trigger an underground collapse of supporting material, thus causing a sinkhole.
Sinkholes are frequently linked with karst landscapes. In such regions, there may be hundreds or even thousands of sinkholes in a small area so that the surface as seen from the air looks pock-marked, and there are no surface streams because all drainage occurs subsurface. Examples of karst landscapes dotted with numerous enormous sinkholes are the Khammouan Mountains (Laos) and Mamo Plateau (Papua New Guinea). The largest known sinkholes formed in sandstone are Sima Humboldt and Sima Martel in Venezuela.
Some sinkholes form in thick layers of homogenous limestone. Their formation is facilitated by high groundwater flow, often caused by high rainfall; such rainfall causes formation of the giant sinkholes in the Nakanaï Mountains, on the New Britain island in Papua New Guinea. On the contact of limestone and insoluble rock below it, powerful underground rivers may form, creating large underground voids.
Unusual processes have formed the enormous sinkholes of Sistema Zacatón in Tamaulipas (Mexico), where more than 20 sinkholes and other karst formations have been shaped by volcanically heated, acidic groundwater. This has produced not only the formation of the deepest water-filled sinkhole in the world—Zacatón—but also unique processes of travertine sedimentation in upper parts of sinkholes, leading to sealing of these sinkholes with travertine lids.
The state of Florida in the United States is known for having frequent sinkhole collapses, especially in the central part of the state. The Murge area in southern Italy also has numerous sinkholes. Sinkholes can be formed in retention ponds from large amounts of rain.[further explanation needed]
When sinkholes are very deep or connected to caves, they may offer challenges for experienced cavers or, when water-filled, divers. Some of the most spectacular are the Zacatón cenote in Mexico (the world's deepest water-filled sinkhole), the Boesmansgat sinkhole in South Africa, Sarisariñamatepuy in Venezuela, the Sótano del Barro in Mexico, and in the town of Mount Gambier, South Australia. Sinkholes that form in coral reefs and islands that collapse to enormous depths are known as blue holes and often become popular diving spots.
Large and visually unusual sinkholes have been well-known to local people since ancient times. Nowadays sinkholes are grouped and named in site-specific or generic names. Some examples of such names are listed below.
Black holes – This term refers to a group of unique, round, water-filled pits in the Bahamas. These formations seem to be dissolved in carbonate mud from above, by the sea water. The dark color of the water is caused by a layer of phototropic microorganisms concentrated in a dense, purple colored layer at 15 to 20 m (49 to 66 ft) depth; this layer "swallows" the light. Metabolism in the layer of microorganisms causes heating of the water, the only known case in the natural world where microorganisms create significant thermal effects. One of them is the Black Hole of Andros.
Blue holes – This name was initially given to the deep underwater sinkholes of the Bahamas but is often used for any deep water-filled pits formed in carbonate rocks. The name originates from the deep blue color of water in these sinkholes, which is created by the high clarity of the water and the great depth of the sinkholes; only the deep blue color of the visible spectrum can penetrate such depth and return after reflection.
Cenotes – This refers to the characteristic water-filled sinkholes in the Yucatán Peninsula, Belize and some other regions. Many cenotes have formed in limestone deposited in shallow seas created by the Chicxulub meteorite's impact.
Sótanos – This name is given to several giant pits in several states of Mexico.
Tiankengs – These are extremely large sinkholes, typically deeper and wider than 250 m (820 ft), with mostly vertical walls, most often created by the collapse of underground caverns. The term means sky hole in Chinese; many of this largest type of sinkhole are located in China.
Tomo – This term is used in New Zealand karst country to describe pot holes.
The 2010 Guatemala City sinkhole formed suddenly in May of that year; torrential rains from Tropical Storm Agatha and a bad drainage system were blamed for its creation. It swallowed a three-story building and a house; it measured approximately 20 m (66 ft) wide and 30 m (98 ft) deep. A similar hole had formed nearby in February 2007.
This large vertical hole is not a true sinkhole, as it did not form via the dissolution of limestone, dolomite, marble, or any other water-soluble rock. Guatemala City is not underlain by any carbonate rock; instead, thick deposits of volcanic ash, unwelded ash flow tuffs, and other pyroclastic debris underlie all of Guatemala City. The dissolution of rock did not form the large vertical holes that swallowed up parts of Guatemala City in 2007 and 2010.
The Guatemala City holes are instead an example of "piping pseudokarst", created by the collapse of large cavities that had developed in the weak, crumbly Quaternary volcanic deposits underlying the city. Although weak and crumbly, these volcanic deposits have enough cohesion to allow them to stand in vertical faces and to develop large subterranean voids within them. A process called "soil piping" first created large underground voids, as water from leaking water mains flowed through these volcanic deposits and mechanically washed fine volcanic materials out of them, then progressively eroded and removed coarser materials. Eventually, these underground voids became large enough that their roofs collapsed to create large holes.
Some of the largest sinkholes in the world are:
In Africa and the Middle East
Bahmah sinkhole (Bimmah sinkhole) – Wadi Shab and Wadi Tiwi, Oman, approximately 30 m (98 ft) deep.
Blue Hole – Dahab, Egypt. A round sinkhole or blue hole, 130 m (430 ft) deep. It includes an archway leading out to the Red Sea at 60 m (200 ft), which has been the site for many freediving and scuba attempts, the latter often fatal.
Boesmansgat – South African freshwater sinkhole, approximately 290 m (950 ft) deep.
Lake Kashiba – Zambia. About 3.5 hectares (8.6 acres) in area and about 100 m (330 ft) deep.
Teiq sinkhole – Oman. One of the largest sinkholes in the world by volume: 90,000,000 m3 (3.2×109 cu ft). Several perennial wadis fall with spectacular waterfalls into this 250 m (820 ft) deep sinkhole.
Dashiwei Tiankeng – Guangxi, China. 613 m (2,011 ft) deep, with vertical walls, bottom contains an isolated patch of forest with rare species.
Xiaozhai Tiankeng – Chongqing Municipality, China. Double nested sinkhole with vertical walls, 662 m (2,172 ft) deep.
Berezniki – Russia. Unstoppable serial technogenic sinkholes over flooded potash mines and under town buildings, roads, railways.
In the Caribbean
Dean's Blue Hole – Bahamas. Deepest known sinkhole under the sea, depth 203 m (666 ft). Popular location for world championships of free diving.
In Central America
Great Blue Hole – Belize. Spectacular, round sinkhole, 124 m (407 ft) deep. Unusual features are tilted stalactites in great depth, which mark the former orientation of limestone layers when this sinkhole was above sea level.
Pozzo del Merro, near Rome, Italy. At the bottom of a 80 m (260 ft) conical pit, and approximately 400 m (1,300 ft) deep, it is considered the deepest sinkhole in the world.
Red Lake – Croatia. Approximately 530 m (1,740 ft) deep pit with nearly vertical walls, contains approximately 280–290 m (920–950 ft) deep lake.
Vouliagmeni – Greece. The sinkhole of Vouliagmeni is known as "The Devil Well", because it is considered extremely dangerous. Four scuba divers are known to have died in it. Maximum depth of 35.2 m (115 ft) and horizontal penetration of 150 m (490 ft).
In North America
Cave of Swallows – San Luis Potosí. 372 m (1,220 ft) deep, round sinkhole with overhanging walls.
The castle perched atop a low hill that overlooked a deep ragged cleft in the ground. The hole encompassed most of the land within the walls. Its bottom lay in shadows.
Safia knew that the ruins of the hilltop fortress were only half of the original structure. The other half lay at the bottom of the hole. Destroyed when the sinkhole opened up under it, taking down sections of walls and half the castle. The tragedy was explained by the continual drop of the land's water table. A natural limestone cistern lay underneath the city. As the water inside it dropped from drought and overuse, it left behind a hollow subterranean cavern that eventually collapsed in on itself, taking out half the city.