Prepared by the Florida Geological Survey
Reproduced May 2005 with minor revisions applicable to Lake County from http://www.dep.state.fl.us/geology/default.htm
1. Why do sinkholes form?
Sinkholes form in karst terrain principally from the collapse of surface sediments into underground cavities in the limestone bedrock. Slightly acidic ground water slowly dissolves cavities and caves in the limestone over a period of many years. When the cavity enlarges to the point that its ceiling can no longer support the weight of overlying sediments, the earth collapses into the cavity. In the less catastrophic, type of sinkhole, a bowl-shaped depression forms at the surface, usually over a considerable period of time. Well drilling data suggests that much of the underlying bedrock in Florida is riddled with cavities of differing size and depth. However, relatively few ever collapse and directly effect roads or dwellings.
Karst terrains develop in areas underlain by carbonate rocks such as limestone. They often have drainage systems that are reflected on the surface as sinkholes, springs, disappearing streams or even caves. The term karst, therefore, refers to the terrain and the term sinkhole is one of the types of drainage features reflected by that type of terrain.
In Florida you may see solution sinkholes, cover-subsidence sinkholes or cover-collapse sinkholes. The first of these three, solution sinkholes, usually occur where there is little or no sediment cover over the limestone. The rock is readily dissolved away at the ground surface or along joints or other openings. Cover subsidence sinkholes are located where thick permeable sediments cover the limestone. In this case the void in the rock is filled by sediments slumping downward from above. Eventually, the ground surface often shows a gentle circular depression. If a relatively thick layer of impermeable sediments covers the limestone there may not be a surface expression of a subsurface collapse Cover-collapse sinkholes occur where sediments that overlie the void in the rock suddenly collapse due to triggering mechanisms such as heavy rainfall, drought, or mechanical loading.
Generally speaking karst terrains are not newsworthy items. Typically, it is only when a road or house happens to be located above developing karst features such as a sinkhole that headlines are made. Since much of Florida is karstic in nature, these same processes are continually taking place. As such, there is a certain degree of risk in living on karst. However, most people accept the risk as one price to pay for living in the sunshine state.
2. My yard is settling…do I have a sinkhole?
Maybe, but a number of other factors can cause sinking or settling. Expansive clay layers in the earth may shrink upon drying, buried organic material, poorly-compacted soil after excavation work, buried trash or logs and broken pipes all may cause depressions to form at the ground surface. If the settling is affecting a dwelling, further testing by a licensed engineer with professional geologist on staff or a professional geology firm may be in order. Property insurance may pay for testing, but in many cases insurance may not cover damage from settling due to causes other than sinkholes.
3. I think I do have a sinkhole in my yard. What should I do?
Small sinkholes often require only filling with clean sand or soil. If the hole is under or very near a structure or swimming pool, your property owner’s insurance may cover assessment and repair. Mark and secure the hole and keep children and pets away. If the hole is directly impacting a house, and sinking, sagging, or cracking walls are apparent, stay out of the dwelling. Call your property insurance adjuster and report it immediately. In some communities local government agencies may assist in evacuating the home, assessing damage and reporting the sinkhole. In many counties the local Emergency Management Offices render assistance when a home is endangered. [In Lake County the Emergency Management number is (352) 343-9420.] Personnel from your local Water Management District may also assist in sinkhole assessment, especially if the sinkhole potentially impacts local ground water. The sinkhole should be reported on the appropriate form and submitted to the Florida Geological Survey
4. How long does it take for the sinkhole to stop growing?
When an underground cavity enlarges to the point that its ceiling can no longer support the weight of overlying sediments, the earth suddenly collapses into the cavity. A circular hole typically forms and grows over a period of minutes to hours. Slumping of the sediments along the sides of the sinkhole may take approximately a day’s time to stop. Erosion of the edge of the sinkhole may continue for several days, and heavy rainfall can prolong the stabilization. In the less catastrophic cover subsidence type of sinkhole, a bowl-shaped depression forms at the surface, typically over longer periods of time (sometimes as long as years).
5. How do I fill in a sinkhole?
Since anything buried in the earth potentially affects the groundwater, use only native earth materials or concrete for the fill. Broken limestone rip-rap or a concrete plug in the bottom of the sinkhole often helps create a stable foundation for the fill. Above that, add clayey sand to form a barrier that will help to prevent water from seeping downward through the hole and enlarging it further. Lastly, add sand and top soil, and landscape to surrounding conditions. Additional fill may be necessary over time, but most holes eventually stabilize.
6. A sinkhole just opened in the middle of my street…who should I call?
The hole should be immediately cordoned off and clearly marked to protect traffic. Contact local law enforcement to report the hazard and call your city/county road department to initiate repair work. If the road is private, repair of the hole is usually the responsibility of the landowner or property owners’ association. [In Lake County, call Road Operations Division at 352-742-0478.]
7. A sinkhole opened in my next door neighbor’s yard….should I be concerned?
Although sinkholes in Florida tend to occur along linear fracture trends (aligned northwest to southeast and northeast to southwest), most are isolated events. The bedrock underlying the state is honeycombed with cavities of varying size, most of which will not collapse in our lifetimes. A quick inspection of your property for any sinking or soft areas might be prudent. Unless the sinkhole is very large, and extends to your property, there’s likely to be little reason for concern.
8. Will watering our lawn lower the water table level and thus, cause sinkholes to develop in our neighborhood?
Probable triggering mechanisms for sinkhole collapse may include drought, new construction, blasting, heavy ground loading, heavy rainfall, and heavy ground-water pumpage. Private lawn wells are typically not sufficient to impact the water table enough to cause sinkholes.
9. Is there a government agency that will come and inspect my sinkhole?
There is currently no agency with responsibility and authority for sinkhole inspections in Florida. Often the Florida Geological Survey (FGS) receives calls from homeowners all over the state who have had the unfortunate experience of sinkhole. We do not have sufficient staff to visit all new sinkholes but do encourage the submittal of a sinkhole report. The Florida Geological Survey maintains a database of reported sinkholes which is available through the FGS web site. We will be happy to discuss your individual situation and make suggestions to you so that you will be informed as to how to handle the situation. In some parts of Florida, the local water management districts have staff available to check local sinkholes, particularly if they contain water. If a sinkhole is threatening your home, immediately contact your insurance company. In many counties staff from the local Emergency Management offices will advise homeowners on safety and evacuation of homes impacted by sinkholes. [In Lake County the Emergency Management number is (352) 343-9420.]
10. Is there a government agency available to help fix a hole on my property?
No. Sinkholes on private property are the responsibility of the property owner. In some cases the owner’s property insurance may cover evaluation and repair of the sinkhole. Actual coverage may vary according to circumstances and insurance company policy.
11. Do I need a permit to fill a sinkhole?
In general no permit is needed to fill a new sinkhole on private property unless it contains ground water. Sinkholes intersecting the underlying aquifers (those containing water) may require an Environmental Resources Permit before filling. This permit is available through your local Water Management District in southern Florida, or from the respective district offices of the Florida Department of Environmental Protection in northern Florida. District staff will assist in assessing the need for a permit and the permit approval process. As many sinkholes are direct conduits to our drinking water aquifers, some care in selection of fill material is advisable. Do not fill a sinkhole with trash, chemicals, or other materials that could contaminate ground water. Natural earth materials such as clean limestone rock, sand, and clayey sand are suitable. [In Lake County it is illegal to fill a sinkhole with materials other than clean fill, i.e. soil or concrete rubble.]
12. What is the sinkhole risk factor associated with my area?
Unfortunately there is no ready reference on sinkhole prediction or risk assessment. The insurance companies have tried developing some sort of risk prediction methodology, but since the underground cavities are largely undetectable without expensive ground-penetrating radar surveys, resistivity tests, or test drilling, no real progress towards this goal has been made. About the most we can presently do is construct regional maps such as our, Sinkhole, Development and Distribution in Florida Map, showing zones of sinkhole occurrences based on the local geology and historical sinkhole activity.
13. Is there any way to have my property evaluated as to the risk of a sinkhole forming?
Professional geologists and geotechnical engineering consultants with professional geologists on staff can perform a variety of tests to attempt to locate buried cavities which might form sinkholes. These tests include ground penetrating radar surveys, electrical resistivity tests, and borings. However, test results may be affected by the local geology and elevation of the water table, and are not always conclusive. And in many cases the cost of a detailed survey is beyond the typical homeowner’s budget.
14. I am buying a house with a repaired sinkhole under the foundation. Is this safe?
A number of engineering companies routinely repair sinkholes. Techniques vary from simple injection of grout into the hole to more advanced systems of engineered reinforced plugs, pins, and porous concrete. In general, if a repair has been certified by a licensed engineer, and completed to the satisfaction of the homeowner’s insurance company, it is probably safe. However, as you are dealing with natural systems, there can be no guarantees that a repaired sinkhole will not cause future problems.
15. Is there a safe area of Florida in which to live with no chance of sinkholes?
Technically no. Since the entire state is underlain by carbonate rocks, sinkholes could theoretically form anywhere. However, there are definite regions where sinkhole risk is considerably higher. In general, areas of the state where limestone is close to surface, or areas with deeper limestone but with a conducive configuration of water table elevation, stratigraphy, and aquifer characteristics have increased sinkhole activity. The Florida sinkhole location map (link button) shows the distribution of reported sinkholes statewide, and gives a rough idea where some of the increased risk areas may be located. However, these are only the reported sinkholes. There are countless more sinks statewide than are shown on this map. The sinkhole type and occurrence map provides additional information on sinkholes statewide.
16. Is there a database showing all sinkholes in Florida?
No. The Florida Geological Survey maintains a database of reported sinkholes. This represents only those sinkholes officially reported by observers. The reported sinkholes tend to cluster in populated areas where they are readily seen and commonly effect roads and dwellings. However, numerous sinkholes also occur in fields and forests, many of which go unseen and unreported. Also, the reported date only covers the period from 1954 to present. Many earlier sinkholes are unrecorded.
17. Where can I find available sinkhole information for a specific area?
You can find this information in the sinkhole database located on this website. Click the Excel Spreadsheet link. The data is arranged by county. Find your county and search under the column that is titled address. It is here that you will have the best chance of finding the street locations. There are over 2000 reported sinkholes in the database.
18. I am buying a new home and I want to know if there is a sinkhole disclosure law?
Most real estate seller’s disclosure forms used in Florida today include a sinkhole disclosure statement. Sometimes it is overlooked. If it is in question, be sure to ask.
19. Is a new construction site tested for sinkholes?
In most cases no. It is generally not required by building codes, and most building contractors do not provide testing on private home sites because of the additional expense. In some cases public building construction sites in sinkhole areas may be tested and reinforced as needed for safety and liability reasons.
20. I was denied homeowners insurance because there is a sinkhole within one half mile of my home. What can I do?
Currently, an insurance company has the right to not issue an insurance policy on the basis of sinkholes in the “area.” The definition of “area” remains subjective, and the issue will likely only be resolved through specific legislation or by the general adoption of a standard by the insurance industry. Some companies have more liberal policies, and you may wish to shop around for other insurance that may be available.
21. My insurance company has informed us that the area where we are going to purchase property is listed as a sinkhole area. What does this mean? What can we do about it? Should we buy in that area?
See question #20. Certainly the availability of insurance is a major factor to most homebuyers. Insurance companies may vary on their individual requirements and you should shop around for the best insurance policy that may be available to you. Unfortunately there is no ready reference on sinkhole prediction or risk assessment. This has made accurate risk determinations difficult and has hampered the formulation of either legislation or an industry standard on this issue. As a result many insurance companies rely heavily upon the regional maps showing zones of sinkhole occurrences based on the local geology and historical sinkhole activity. Any decision to purchase a particular property is of course a highly individual one, involving not only insurance availability, but also your own personal tolerance for risk and your desire to live in a particular area.
22. Who may I call to obtain further information on insurance in Florida or to issue a complaint about my insurance company?
The Florida Department of Financial Services has established a HELP LINE. The phone number is 1-877-693-5236. Or you may contact them online.
23. What happened to the Florida Sinkhole Research Institute (FSRI)?
The Florida legislature discontinued FSRI’s funding in the early 1990’s, and its database was transferred to the Florida Geological Survey (FGS). A brief history is outlined below.
Since its inception in 1907, the Florida Geological Survey has gathered data on Florida karst (sinkholes, caves, springs, etc.) This information is primarily used to more fully understand the unique relationship between karst and the state’s groundwater resources and aquifer systems.
In 1982, the Florida Sinkhole Research Institute was created at the University of Central Florida in Orlando. At that time all FGS sinkhole data files were transferred to the FSRI. One of their programs was to compile and tabulate this information and convert it to a computer database. When the Florida legislature discontinued FSRI’s funding in the early 1990’s, the FSRI nearly ceased operations entirely. After that the database was returned to the FGS and reformatted. Selected portions of the reformatted data were published in 1994 as FGS Open File Report 58, “FLORIDA SINKHOLE INDEX.” The data is currently available in a MS Excel spreadsheet format via the FGS Internet web site. As for FSRI, they are still located at the University of Central Florida (UCF) and their current director is Dr. Shiou-San Kuo. He can be reached at UCF’s Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering at (407) 823-2280.
To better understand karst processes and the features associated with it, the FGS published Special Publication 29, "Karst in Florida" (viewable online at: http://ufdcweb1.uflib.ufl.edu/ufdc/?b=UF00000144&v=00001). The author, Mr. Ed Lane, did an excellent job of explaining the various aspects of Florida Karst in an easy to understand manner for the non-scientific community, and as a tool for teachers to use in the classroom. Other FGS publications that discuss karst in Florida include Map Series 110 which explains sinkhole types, their distribution and development (viewable online at: http://publicfiles.dep.state.fl.us/FGS/FGS_Publications/MS/MS110SinkholeType/sinkholetype2.pdf).
The 1992 Florida Legislature mandated that a study of sinkhole insurance issues be conducted. The study was completed by the Florida State University Center for Insurance Research, under the direction of the Florida Department of Insurance. The report, Insurance Study of Sinkholes, was submitted to the Department in December of 1992 and subsequently to the appropriate Legislative Committees.
Two chapters of that report were reproduced by the Florida Geological Survey as Open File Report 72 ( viewable online at: http://publicfiles.dep.state.fl.us/FGS/FGS_Publications/MS/MS110SinkholeType/sinkholetype2.pdf), in response to interest from governmental agencies, the public, and the professional community. Chapter V, deals with “Claims Standards.” It was determined during the course of the study that a listing of typical standards used by Professional Geologists or Professional Geotechnical Engineers was needed to offer guidance regarding what a competent geological assessment of a site should consider to determine if karst processes are responsible for observed features. Chapter V is entitled “ Examination of the Establishment of Minimum Standards for the Evaluation of Sinkhole Claims.
Additional technical reports and resources are available through the Florida Geological Survey publications office which can be found at: http://www.dep.state.fl.us/geology/publications/library.htm.
Florida Department of Environmental Protection maintain also maintains additional sinkhole information available at the following link: http://www.dep.state.fl.us/geology/geologictopics/sinkhole.htm