Several trees growing out of a Louisiana bayou are suddenly sucked down beneath the water. A nearly-perfect circle wider than a city street opens in the middle of Guatemala City, revealing a tunnel so deep that you can’t see the bottom. In Florida, a growing crater threatens to consume nearby houses.
These are all stories of sinkholes, among the strangest and most unexpected natural phenomena that affect the planet. Unlike hurricanes, they are difficult to predict, and they can happen almost anywhere. Yet the scientific explanation for the existence of sinkholes is actually relatively simple.
Related: 10 Virtual Tours of the World's Creepiest Places That You Can Take Right Now
Most sinkholes form through a process called “suffosion.” Water-soluble rocks underground are gradually worn away by groundwater, until the surface of the earth is nothing more than a thin shell. It takes very little for that shell to suddenly give out, collapsing the seemingly-solid earth into a sinkhole that may be hundreds of feet deep.
Also called cenotes, dolines, and swallow holes, sinkholes can also form when the underground water table lowers, or when mines or caves collapse. While some areas are more prone to sinkholes than others, they can form in just about any part of the world—even the bottom of the ocean. A famous example is the Great Blue Hole off the coast of Belize, which is over a thousand feet across and more than 400 feet deep.
The terror and fascination of a sinkhole’s sudden formation have been the subject of numerous stories, disaster movies, and even viral videos, like the "weird sinkhole guy" interview that circulated on YouTube after a 25-foot-wide sinkhole opened in the middle of a Detroit street in 2015.
Sinkholes can also provide important scientific information. Such is the case with the sinkholes found atop Cerro Sarisariñama, a flat-topped mesa located in Venezuela. It’s named for local Native American tales of evil spirits that live in caves in the mountain and consume human flesh with a sound like “sari…sari.”
The largest of the sinkholes found at Cerro Sarisariñama, the Sima Humboldt, is more than a thousand feet wide and a thousand feet deep. At the bottom of the sinkhole, there’s an isolated forest ecosystem.
Here are a few of the weirder sinkholes that have opened up around the world in recent years...
Bayou Corne Sinkhole
Difficult to see because it’s mostly underwater, the Bayou Corne sinkhole in Louisiana is one of the largest sinkholes to open in recent memory, covering more than three dozen acres and forcing the evacuation of over 350 nearby residents. A dramatic YouTube video shows trees being pulled down into the swamp as the sinkhole consumes them.
When the sinkhole first opened up in 2012, the governor of Louisiana declared a state of emergency and ordered an investigation into the cause of the disaster. In 2018, a judge ruled that the sinkhole had been caused by the collapse of an underground salt cavern beneath the bayou, and that salt-mining operators Texas Brine, Occidental Chemical, and Vulcan Materials were at fault.
Guatemala City Sinkhole
In 2010, a massive sinkhole 300 feet deep and more than 65 feet across opened up in the middle of Guatemala City, the result of heavy rains that occurred during Tropical Storm Agatha and outdated sewage systems beneath the city streets that had eroded the volcanic rock on which the city is built. The collapse swallowed a three-story factory whole.
Related: Tips from Paranormal Experts on How to Cleanse A Space of Evil Spirits
Guatemala City is apparently no stranger to sinkholes. Another one of similar size had opened there just three years before, killing five people. Another dramatic sinkhole story from Guatemala City concerns Inocenta Hernandez, 65, who heard a loud boom in 2011 and assumed a neighbor’s gas canister had exploded. It turns out that a sinkhole had opened directly under her bed, leaving behind an almost perfectly round hole in the floor roughly the size of a manhole that opened down into the earth like a well.
In the Bosnian village of Sanica, a sinkhole that the locals call “the abyss” consumed an entire pond in 2013. More than 150 feet wide and nearly as deep, the sinkhole subsumed the entire pond, as well as nearby grazing land and several trees and outbuildings. In the above video, a vivid pink house can be seen teetering on the edge of the sinkhole. Although scientists believe the sinkhole was caused by drying underground water currents, or changes in soil drainage due to irrigation, some villagers have a spookier explanation: the owner of the pond, who had died about a month prior to the sinkhole opening up, vowed to take all his earthly possessions with him to the afterlife.
Corvette Museum Sinkhole
At 5:38 in the morning on February 12, 2014, a 40-foot-wide sinkhole opened directly beneath a showroom floor in the National Corvette Museum in Bowling Green, Kentucky. The crater swallowed eight rare and one-of-a-kind Corvettes that were on display in the museum, worth an estimated total of one million dollars. Luckily, the collapse occurred while the museum was closed. No one was hurt, and the cars were able to be recovered from the bottom of the 25-foot-deep hole.
Related: Creepy Baby Doll Head Found Embedded in Cellar Wall—What's the Deal?
Gainesville, Florida Sinkhole
In October of 2020, local news teams reported on a sinkhole in a Gainesville, Florida neighborhood. Not to be confused with Devil’s Millhopper, a sinkhole located in a state park in the same city, this sinkhole had opened up in a residential area. At the time, the sinkhole was more than 40 feet across, and dramatic photos showed the sinkhole swallowing trees and gnawing at the edges of backyard swimming pools.
By the first week of November, the sinkhole had increased to more than 100 feet across and was well over 25 feet deep. Local authorities issued evacuation orders, demolishing two homes on the edge of the sinkhole, and used drones to monitor the depths of the hole, the bottom of which was filled with water.
Sources: Washington Post, NBC News, WCJB News
Featured photo of Guatemala City sinkhole, 2010: Alchetron