What Happens When Earth Opens up


  • An expanding sinkhole in West Virginia is threatening to swallow a police department building.
  • Sinkholes can be manmade or naturally occurring.
  • Here are a few sinkholes that have appeared around the world in the past several years.

Whether a result of human error, climate change, or the earth’s ever-changing terrain, the sudden appearance of sinkholes can threaten lives and livelihoods.

A small sinkhole that appeared in a West Virginia parking lot last year has expanded so much that it now threatens to swallow up a city’s police department building. 

And recently, two massive sinkholes opened up in Villa Nueva, Guatemala, on Saturday after the region experienced heavy rainfall, according to The Associated Press. At least three people were injured and two — a mother and daughter — are missing. Search efforts continued on Monday, AP reported. The sinkholes opened up in the middle of a major roadway for Villa Nueva, which is located about 10 miles south of Guatemala’s capital.

Sinkholes can be naturally occurring or manmade. They most commonly occur in areas with “karst terrain,” where the rocks below the surface “can naturally be dissolved by groundwater circulating through them,” according to the US Geological Survey.

When the water beneath the land slowly dissolves and carries away the rock, eventually the ground collapses often in very dramatic form.

In cities, sinkholes can emerge after a water main break or a burst pipe. They can also occur in areas where there is abundant rain, according to National Geographic. 

At least in the US, there is no database tracking the number of sinkholes, according to the USGS. Oftentimes, they go unreported, especially when they happen in rural areas.

The damages can be extensive, however, from financial tolls to deaths. In the past 15 years, the USGS estimates that sinkholes cost at least $300 million per year on average in the US. And the costs are probably much higher, the agency states. It’s unclear how many have died from this phenomenon.

Here are some sinkholes that emerged in the past several years.

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