Earth’s Trying to Swallow Us Up


Photo: Ravell Call / The Deseret News via AP / NBC News
Photo: Ravell Call / The Deseret News via AP / NBC News

The internet blackhole of information.  I stumbled upon this image of a landslide mining accident that happened on April 11th in Utah and found myself down a rabbit hole of research that went something like this: mines, man-made mines, tunneling, caving, sinkholes, and particularly the sinkhole that seems to have swallowed up Florida resident Jeff Bush in early March, which led me to speculate the causes before doing any further research – how fracking, mineral extraction, and dynamiting the bedrock below us and gutting the earth of its mantle is causing some serious problems for us. But it’s more complicated than that…

Satellite View of Sinkholes in Florida

When the Huffington Post reported on that sinkhole in Florida we find out that “there is hardly a place in Florida that is immune to sinkholes”. Well, how is that for dismal? It turns out that Florida sits on “karst” – a mixture of limestone and porous rock with a layer of dissolvable clay on top. So what happens when it rains too much and the already overburdened earth gets sodden? One result is that sinkholes tend to develop and those that open up in developed areas unfortunately swallow up a man in his own bedroom. How’s that for retribution? I’m not a staunch believer in the apocalypse or doomsday or a sentient earth – not really anyway. But it does seem like the earth is screaming GET OUT, doesn’t it?  These guys think so.

Guatemala City Sinkhole – 30 Stories Deep, 18 Meters Wide

Geologist Jonathan Arthur clears up the circumstances of developing sinkholes. There are many factors that contribute to sinkholes, and they are actually common in states all over the US – just take a look at this map from the US Geological Survey on Water Science – and throughout the world. Fortunately, not all of these areas are inhabited.  But for those that are there are factors specific to Florida that make this karst topography state much more prone to their development: extreme weather, development, aquifer pumping and construction. Three out of four of those things are directly related to human activity. For example, in 2002 cold weather contributed to 22 sinkholes opening up in Tampa, Florida because farmers were extracting ground water to protect crops from freezing, contributing to cavities developing in the already porous soil that eventually collapsed into sinkholes. Discovery does a good job of describing this.

The development sinkholes is a natural process that helps re-hydrate the soil, refill the water supply – you know, do what ecosystems do: recycle, regenerate, and rebuild. So when development blocks the pathway, prevents it or inhibits it, extracts from it and never reimburses it, nature has a way of self-regulating. So here’s a crazy timeline featuring some of those instances that did not make headlines.

These phenomena are beautiful but devastating. I’m digging through photos of the earth swallowing itself up, cannibalizing, turning itself inside out. I once wanted to write a story about how mankind retreats underground, gravity is reversed and we use the earth’s crust and mantle as the ground, looking up at its core as if it were a sun, having hollowed out the earth to build a city within. I mean, we’re already doing this – NYC MTA Tunnel explosions

 – and carving out the earth to extract its minerals, piling it back on top and hoping it doesn’t crumble and swallow us back up.

We could ask “How do we design to build on a karst landscape?” or we can just ask “Why build on a karst landscape?” Fine, say we continue this development … what do we plan to do about it?

Or maybe in the meantime, to avoid the fear, we can laugh about it.


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