State geologists mapping North Florida sinkholes

FILE - A fence has been installed around the large sinkhole that opened in the backyard of Robin and Rhonda Mathney, in the Jonesville area west of Gainesville, Tuesday June 11, 2013.

Brad McClenny/The Gainesville Sun
Published: Friday, December 27, 2013 at 7:50 p.m.
Last Modified: Friday, December 27, 2013 at 9:16 p.m.

TALLAHASSEE — State geologists already have been to 30 sites and mapped about 50 sinkholes in Columbia, Hamilton and Suwannee counties as they begin to plumb the depth of the state's vulnerability to ground collapse.

Florida received a $1.08 million federal grant for a three-year, statewide study, which began last month with a pilot study in Columbia, Hamilton and Suwannee. The pilot will end in May 2014.

The three North Florida counties were selected for the pilot because the area is "geomorphically diverse," or has more of a wide variety of the state's many geological features, said geologist Clint Kromhout.

The Florida Geological Survey and Florida Department of Emergency Management are collaborating on the study.

"Essentially, what we're looking for is all the variables that explain why a sinkhole occurs where it does," Kromhout said.

The result will be a detailed, multi-layered map that shows where sinkholes are most likely to form, but doesn't predict where and when individual sinkholes will occur.

"If someone could do that, they'd be a very wealthy person," Kromhout said.

In February, a Seffner man died when a sinkhole opened under his bedroom as he slept, swallowing him. His body was never recovered.

Sinkholes are common in Florida because of porous rock, such as limestone, that stores water underground.

Over time, acid in the water dissolves the rock, creating a void. When the earth above the limestone gets too heavy, it can cave in, forming a sinkhole.

The study was welcomed by Sonny Nobles, mayor of Live Oak in Suwannee County, where sinkholes caused by Tropical Storm Debby have left the area looking pockmarked like Swiss cheese.

"I hope it's beneficial to us," Nobles said. "We've had a lot of experience with sinkholes as of late."

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