• I've got that sinking feeling (Getty Images)Source: Getty Images
The causes and effects of these terrifying natural disasters are examined in a three-part documentary
Mary Kiley

15 Jun 2018 - 4:24 PM  UPDATED 26 Jun 2018 - 8:56 AM

Picture this: you’re at home, in bed. There’s a knock at the door. It’s the emergency services telling you to leave your house immediately because there’s a giant sinkhole in your backyard. Now, imagine this: You’re at home, in bed when a giant sinkhole actually opens up underneath you and you fall into it.

Both these terrifying scenarios have actually happened. In the first case, the residents of Magdalen’s Rd in Ripon, England, managed to escape. In the latter, sadly, Jeff Bush of Tampa, Florida did not. The survivors recount their harrowing tales in Sinkholes: Deadly Drops, a three-part documentary series on these destructive natural phenomena.

Why are they so frightening?

One of the scariest aspects of sinkholes is the apparent suddenness and randomness with which they appear. We’ve all said, “I could get hit by a bus tomorrow,” but we don’t actually BELIEVE it, or we figure we could leap out of the bus’s way in time. But what if you’re sitting ON the bus when it actually falls into a sinkhole? This happened to the passengers of a Norwich, England bus in 1988 and the bus driver cheerily recalls the incident in the documentary because, in this case, it ended well. But, if the hole had been a little deeper, the outcome could have been as devastating as it was for Jeff Bush (whose body was never recovered from the sinkhole in his bedroom). Even the rich and powerful are not safe, it seems, with sinkholes opening up near the homes of our PMand the US President (an event which provided ample opportunities for online wits everywhere…)

What causes them?

As the experts in the documentary explain, if the rocks below the surface dissolve easily in water (for example, limestone or gypsum), over time, water trapped beneath the surface will dissolve the rocks, leading to chasms. Eventually, the surface layer becomes too thin, can’t support the weight of what’s above it, and collapses. This is why, in areas like Tampa, Florida and Ripon, UK, where limestone and gypsum are ubiquitous, sinkholes have become a major problem. Despite people knowing about Ripon’s sinkholes for a long time – there’s speculation that Alice in Wonderland author Lewis Carroll based Alice’s rabbit hole on a well-known Ripon sinkhole –they’ve continued to build there.

While sinkholes occur in nature, it’s possible that human activities such as mining, farming and reclaiming land for residential purposes has contributed to the problem. This may explain why it seems like something we hadn’t previously heard much about has recently become “a thing”. Why it seems like every night on the news, cars and motorbikes are being swallowed by the earth. It’s like a really dark version of Funniest Home Videos.

How can we avoid them?

Congratulations! You are already doing one of the best things you can do to avoid sinkholes – live in Australia. While Australia is not 100 per cent immune to sinkholes, we are fairly safe, thanks to our dry climate. There is a lot of limestone in the Nullarbor Plains but anyone who’s visited that area knows that moisture is not a major problem.

If anything, Sinkholes: Deadly Drops is a reminder of how lucky we are. The documentary reveals the lasting impact sinkholes have had on people who’ve lost everything they owned. Some, like the cheery Ripon golfers who proudly show off their sinkhole-riddled course, or the resident who jokes about his son playing “sinkholes”, have almost embraced them, while the Florida residents who’ve lost all their worldly possessions take comfort in the fact that they and their families have survived.

Sinkholes: Deadly Drops offers fascinating stories of survival and an insight into these lurking threats and their causes, both natural and man-made.

Sinkholes: Deadly Drops begins on Sunday 17 June at 7.30pm on SBS. You can watch it at SBS On Demand.

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