State of the Planet

News from the Columbia Climate School

Your friendly neighborhood Sinkhole: a sign of things to come?

Your old infrastructure is going to eat you alive.

Well, maybe not you, exactly, but it is eating some people alive.

I’m talking about the astounding sinkhole that formed in Guatemala City over the weekend.  The ground fell away and an entire three story building disappeared into the depths of the earth, causing at least 1 death.  What a way to go.  Other sinkholes in the city are being reported.

The 2010 Guatemala Sinkhole:


Sinkholes can be a natural phenomena, happening when water dissolves certain types of rocks and minerals beneath the surface (limestone, gypsum, salt formations).  What’s happening in Guatemala City may have had a little help from the man made infrastructure.

In 2007 another sinkhole, 330 meters wide, opened up in the city as the result, they believe, of a broken sewer line.  Three people died.

The 2007 Guatemala Sinkhole:


Inadequate, broken, leaking sewer lines or water mains flush away the surrounding material, and eventually the surface layer follows suit, regardless of what humans may have constructed.

They don’t know for sure yet, but the speculation is that the same might have happened this weekend, as a result of storm drains overloaded by the heavy Tropical Storm Agatha which hit the area, causing extensive flooding and landslides and at least 150 deaths.  And this right on the heels of a major volcanic eruption outside the city.

Well, you might think, that’s Guatemala.  Who knows what their infrastructure standards are?  It’s not just Guatemala, though, you can forget that.

Some parts of the United States (Florida, Texas, Great Lakes) are vulnerable because of the geological formations existing there.  In Borneo, Papua New Guinea and Indonesia sinkholes can measure miles across.  But again, don’t relax if that isn’t you.

Case in point: on April 9th, 2010, a 10 by 15 foot sinkhole appeared on a busy thoroughfare in the Bronx, New York, near the Botanical Gardens, also believed to have been caused by the failure of a sewer line built in 1939.  That’s right, you can be walking down the street in New York City and have that street open up under you.

The 2010 Bronx Sinkhole:


My intention isn’t to make you afraid to go outside.  This phenomenon is another indication of the need to make substantial investments in the aging, deteriorating water and sewer infrastructure, as I discussed in a previous post. If we don’t, broken mains and loss of service may be just the beginning of the inconveniences we could suffer.

People complain about the cost of infrastructure renewal, but honestly, how much would you be willing to pay to avoid being swallowed alive by the earth?

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