What is the difference between a sinkhole and land subsidence?

Sinkholes are just one of many forms of ground collapse, or subsidence. Land subsidence is a gradual settling or sudden sinking of the Earth’s surface owing to subsurface movement of earth materials. The principal causes of land subsidence are aquifer-system compaction, drainage of organic soils, underground mining, hydrocompaction, natural compaction, sinkholes, and thawing permafrost. Land subsidence can affect areas that are thousands of square miles in size.

A sinkhole is a depression in the ground that has no natural external surface drainage. Basically, this means that when it rains, all of the water stays inside the sinkhole and typically drains into the subsurface. Sinkholes are most common in what geologists call, “karst terrain.” These are regions where the type of rock below the land surface can naturally be dissolved by groundwater circulating through them. Soluble rocks include salt beds and domes, gypsum, and limestone and other carbonate rock.

The USGS Water Science School has information on both sinkholes and land subsidence.

 

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What is the difference between a sinkhole and a pothole?

A sinkhole is a closed natural depression in the ground surface caused by removal of material below the ground and either collapse or gradual subsidence of the surface into the resulting void. A pothole is usually a fairly small feature caused by failure of paving materials, usually associated with roads, parking lots, and airports. In the colder...

What is the largest sinkhole in the United States?

There are some very large, ancient, ‘inactive’ sinkholes in some areas of the U.S. that are thousands of years old. Alabama claims to have the largest recent collapse sinkhole. It is called the “Golly Hole” and is located in Shelby County in the central part of the state. It collapsed suddenly in 1972. The sinkhole is about 325 feet long, 300 feet...

How many sinkholes open up in a year?

There is no database of sinkhole collapses for the United States, so these data are unavailable. Some individual state geologic surveys track reported collapses within their state. Many sinkhole collapses are not reported to authorities or news organizations, and many occur in rural areas where they are unobserved.

How much does sinkhole damage cost each year in the United States?

Sinkhole damages over the last 15 years cost on average at least $300 million per year. Since there is no national tracking of sinkhole damage costs, this estimate is probably much lower than the actual cost.

What is a sinkhole?

A sinkhole is a depression in the ground that has no natural external surface drainage. Basically, this means that when it rains, all of the water stays inside the sinkhole and typically drains into the subsurface. Sinkholes are most common in what geologists call, “karst terrain.” These are regions where the types of rock below the land surface...
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Date published: July 19, 2017

New App Shows Aquifer Level Change and Subsidence in Relation to Groundwater Withdrawals in Houston-Galveston Area

A new interactive web application illustrates how groundwater, sediment compaction and land-elevation change are related in the Houston-Galveston region in Texas. The new app was developed by the U.S. Geological Survey and is available online.

Date published: July 25, 2016

EarthWord–Karst

Although it sounds like a Batman punch, this EarthWord is closer to the Bat than you’d think...

Date published: October 1, 2015

During Recent Droughts: Central Valley Groundwater Levels Reached Historical Lows and Land Subsidence Intensified

This year, groundwater levels in many wells in California’s Central Valley are at or below historical low levels. In addition, from 2007 through 2015, land subsidence that correlates to areas with large groundwater level declines has strongly increased in two large agricultural areas near the towns of El Nido and Pixley, according to a new article by the U.S. Geological Survey.

Date published: November 21, 2013

Renewed Land Subsidence Poses Risk to Water Infrastructure in California’s San Joaquin Valley

Extensive groundwater pumping from San Joaquin Valley aquifers is increasing the rate of land subsidence, or sinking. This large-scale and rapid subsidence has the potential to cause serious damage to the water delivery infrastructure that brings water from the north of the valley to the south where it helps feed thirsty cropland and cities.

Date published: September 4, 2009

Central Valley subsidence study launched

USGS will track cause and extent of ground sinking near California Aqueduct. The latest satellite tracking data will be used to help scientists gain a better understanding of how land subsidence is affecting the state-owned California Aqueduct in California's San Joaquin Valley.

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October 25, 2016

Karst, Critters, and Climate Change

This webinar was conducted as part of the Climate Change Science and Management Webinar Series, co-hosted by the USGS National Climate Change and Wildlife Science Center and the FWS National Conservation Training Center. Webinar Description: One-half of North American imperiled species live in subterranean habitats, which largely are associated with karst (a type of

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November 20, 2014

PubTalk 11/2014 — Water, Nuts, and the Nation's Fruit Bowl

California's Central Valley Hydrologic Science

by Claudia Faunt, USGS Hydrologist

 

  • Using about 1% of U.S. farmland, California's Central Valley supplies 7% of the U.S. agricultural output (by value) -- 1/4 of the Nation's food, including about half of the Nation's fruits, nuts, and vegetables.
  • Approximately 20
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USGS
April 3, 2011

An Unseen World Beneath Our Feet - Caves, Sinkholes and Springs

Randall Orndorff, Director of the Eastern Geology and Paleoclimate Science Center, discusses how Karst affects daily life. Beneath a quarter of the United States are rock types that can dissolve to form caves, sinkholes and other features. Nearly every state has rock layers of limestone, gypsum, and other soluble rocks we call ‘karst’. Karst is important for many reasons.

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Photo collage of karst features in Buffalo National River
December 31, 2010

Karst features, Buffalo National River

Examples of karst features within the Buffalo National River Park. Karst is a type of topography that is formed over limestone, dolomite, or gypsum by dissolving or solution, and that is characterized by closed depressions or sinkholes, caves, and underground drainage (American Geological Institute Dictionary of Geologic Terms).

Image: Sinkhole Activity Damages Home.
January 1, 2010

Sinkhole Activity Damages Home.

Cracking along exterior walls is a sign of subsidence activity. Such severe structural damage from sinkholes can destroy homes and other structures. More than 110 sinkholes formed in the Dover area of Florida during a freeze event in January 2010. Ground water levels dropped to record-setting lows as farmers pumped water to irrigate their plants for protection from the

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Image: Sinkholes in West-central Florida, Freeze Event of 2010
January 1, 2010

Sinkholes in West-central Florida, Freeze Event of 2010

More than 110 sinkholes formed in the Dover area of Florida during a freeze event in January 2010. Ground water levels dropped to record-setting lows as farmers pumped water to irrigate their plants for protection from the cold temperatures. The sinkholes destroyed homes, roads and sections of cultivated areas.

Image: Sinkholes in West-central Florida, Freeze Event of 2010
January 1, 2010

Sinkholes in West-central Florida, Freeze Event of 2010

More than 110 sinkholes formed in the Dover area of Florida during a freeze event in January 2010. Ground water levels dropped to record-setting lows as farmers pumped water to irrigate their plants for protection from the cold temperatures. The sinkholes destroyed homes, roads and sections of cultivated areas.

Image: Sinkholes in West-central Florida, Freeze Event of 2010
January 1, 2010

Sinkholes in West-central Florida, Freeze Event of 2010

More than 110 sinkholes formed in the Dover area of Florida during a freeze event in January 2010. Ground water levels dropped to record-setting lows as farmers pumped water to irrigate their plants for protection from the cold temperatures. The sinkholes destroyed homes, roads and sections of cultivated areas.

Image: Sinkholes in West-central Florida, Freeze Event of 2010
January 1, 2010

Sinkholes in West-central Florida, Freeze Event of 2010

More than 110 sinkholes formed in the Dover area of Florida during a freeze event in January 2010. Ground water levels dropped to record-setting lows as farmers pumped water to irrigate their plants for protection from the cold temperatures. The sinkholes destroyed homes, roads and sections of cultivated areas.

USGS
May 8, 2008

What's Up With Sinkholes?

A huge sinkhole in Texas begs a few questions about this fascinating and sometimes hazardous phenomenon, so we sit down with USGS geologist Randy Orndorff to learn more.

Image: Various Karst Features Along Peace River, Fl
January 1, 2008

Various Karst Features Along Peace River, Fl

Observing the small amount of flow going into Dover Sink.

Image: Various Karst Features Along Peace River, Fl
January 1, 2007

Various Karst Features Along Peace River, Fl

Monitoring levels at Gator Sink.