On Shaky Ground

By Sepkowitz, Kent | Newsweek, March 8, 2013 | Go to article overview

On Shaky Ground


Sepkowitz, Kent, Newsweek


Byline: Kent Sepkowitz

Sometimes nature reminds us who is in charge.

Jeff Bush, a resident of Tampa, met a chilling fate the night of February 28, when he was swallowed up by a giant sinkhole. The suddenness and randomness of the event, as well as its geologic brutality, conjured up a disturbing sense of Old Testament retribution.

That the tragedy would occur in Tampa, however, is no surprise. Bush's house was in an area of Florida referred to as Sinkhole Alley, although sinkholes occur throughout the U.S. and in just about every country worldwide. Many lakes and ponds are actually sinkholes now filled with water; the swamps of Florida, beloved by gators and bird watchers alike, are a variation on this--a place where surface water and groundwater meet.

Florida develops more than 100 new sinkholes a year, and many Southern states follow close behind. As a true measure of the extent of the problem, Florida has a squadron of lawyers who specialize in sinkhole reparations. Texas has taken a different approach: there, Devil's Sinkhole, which plunges 150 feet down, is protected state and federal land (and home to millions of Brazilian free-tailed bats). Sinkholes vary in size and depth: some run two football fields deep and resemble nothing so much as a moon crater.

According to the U.S. Geological Survey, Florida is particularly susceptible for two reasons: First, it's the fifth-rainiest state in the country. All that surface water seeps through saturated soil into subterranean groundwater, where it joins vast channels that flow invisibly beneath Floridians' feet.

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