The Sinkhole Hunters

January 6, 2016

One day last May, a muddy truck bound down a dirt road through the backwoods of Gainesville, Florida. It pulled up in a cloud of dust to a sprawling green farmhouse with a wide front porch, nestled among cypress trees dripping in gray Spanish moss. Horses ate from hay bales in a small stable. Situated on four acres of pasture and woods, the house was a place to spend a day in a rocking chair, sipping from a tall cold glass of sweet tea. But the owner, Bill Baxter, a graying, retired hospital administrator with a thick Southern accent, was sweating, and not because of the heat.

Baxter guided the men in the truck through his backyard and told them of the scare he’d had the other day. Abbot, his snow white 10-year-old horse, was wandering along the front lawn of the house. As the horse walked near the knotty old oak tree in the center of the yard, the earth beneath his right front hoof softened and gave way. Baxter ran from the porch of his house and freed Abbot’s hoof from the fresh hole. He gazed down into the narrow deep darkness that remained below. “This is suspicious,” Baxter thought.

He had reason to be wary. A few feet away lurked a pool-sized crater of fallen earth that was growing bigger by the year. It was a sinkhole, just one of thousands pockmarking the state, and now, Baxter feared, it was threatening to take his horses and him and his wife with it. “If this is getting worse,” he said, “how safe can it be in the house?”

“Last time I checked, the constitution lets you move where you want to move. You don’t cut back on growth.”

Baxter’s home is on ground zero of sinkhole country, an area so besieged it’s earned the ominous nickname Sinkhole Alley. While sinkholes dot the globe, Florida is uniquely vulnerable. The state sits on fragile karst terrain formed from the dissolution of soluble bedrock such as limestone, dolomite, and gypsum. Florida suffers from two main culprits causing the sinkholes: the heavy rains pounding the surface and the rampant development upsetting the aquifer.

According to Jon Arthur, Florida State Geologist, there are tens of thousands of sinkholes in the state. And sinkhole claims have tripled since 2006. Just before my visit, three sinkholes swallowed up one street of mobile homes. Last year alone, there were 3,400 reported sinkholes in the United States, 700 of them in Florida. Geologists and geophysicists are racing to predict where sinkholes might strike next, if and when they can. So when Baxter gazed into the hole Abbot left, he did the one and only thing he could—he called the sinkhole hunters.

The men were from Geohazards, a scrappy company of scientists and engineers based in the college town of Gainesville. They get hired by anxious residents like Baxter, corporate builders, and insurance companies to investigate existing sinkholes and anticipate new ones. Using the latest tools and technologies to test for subsurface anomalies, they storm in the wilds of Florida to try to divine the threats brewing underground.

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