on sinkholes

Whaaaaat

Eats up stairs

Alone or in pairs

And sucks em right into the ground

A hole, a hole, good god what a hole

Everyone knows the sinkhole!

In my senior year of high school, I took the Ecology class, which more specifically was Floridian Native Ecology And Other Supercool Things That I Wound Up Being Totally Into Despite Failing The Class. I had a lot going on at home and I was really good at hiding it. Still don’t know how I graduated. But that class gave me a firm grounding – hah – on the subject of sinkholes, aquifers, karst (not loess), saltwater inclusion, drought, water treatment, and all the other things that make Florida such a crumbly crust of sand to build upon.

Today I feel like sharing my knowledge with you. You are about to learn Sinkholes from a Genuine Lifelong Florida Girl. A defective one, mind, as I got the Estonian pallor and couldn’t tan at gunpoint, but a Floridian nonetheless. I instinctively do the stingray shuffle and I can identify bug bites by the welts they leave. I’ve earned my cred.

NOW THE DISCLAIMER: everything I am about to relate comes from the initial base of knowledge I learned in that class, bolstered by things I learned on the internet because I am a nerd and I like to spend hours learning about local geology in my free time. If I get something wrong, and you are in a position to know that for a fact and tell me what is the correct bit of information, PLEASE DO. Then I will edit this post, credit you for the corrections, and be more useful.

To explain this I need to get to very basic things and ancient history.

In the beginning, Florida was a sandbar barely peeking out from older, warmer oceans. The shellfish and tiny crustaceans that collected on it, over time, were calcified and compressed into limestone, which is porous, relatively fragile, and has a curious chemical reaction to acids like vinegar. (It was a fun day when we did Vinegar Rock Tests.) Limestone is made mostly of calcium carbonate, which is easily demolished by acids; if you drop ordinary white household vinegar on the stone, it will fizz impressively. It is not strong stuff, as rocks go, but it is perfect for the Floridan Aquifer. (Not Floridian. I don’t know why, don’t ask.)

Image via Wikipedia; fair use etc.

Image via Wikipedia & USGS.

The aquifer is made of porous limestone and water. Think of it as a saturated sponge, except the sponge is made of stone. This construction, a soluble waterlogged bedrock, is known as karst. There are lots of karst areas in the world; another that immediately comes to mind is the Yucatan cenotes, and I believe there’s another substantial one under the midwestern US, which has for decades supplied water to all of the farming that goes on out there.

This karst aquifer is a magnificent system. It has been tested by relentless nature for longer than humans have existed. It regulates itself. It functions just fine on its own terms. The problem is that those are not human terms.

Here’s how it goes: rain leaches through the soil and clay and sand, losing impurities as it goes. It sinks until it reaches the limestone bedrock which, being porous, absorbs and contains it. It stays there, circulating in a thousand beautiful subterranean rivers, until it burbles back to the surface in springs which feed rivers and streams.

Note I do not say lakes; although there are some spring lakelets (I’ve swum in beautiful Lithia which feeds the Alafia) most lakes in the Floridan Aquifer system are the result of sinkholes.

A sinkhole is simple enough. Water is dense and solid. So, too, is rock — even fragile rock like limestone. This delicate-seeming combination is quite sturdy and normally can support the ground above it. Sometimes, usually due to drought, the aquifer’s water level goes down. The limestone alone cannot support whatever is over it, so eventually gravity does what it does best and brings things crashing down. That is a sinkhole.

Most Florida lakes are sinkhole lakes: they began as sinkholes. Since water is always going down to the aquifer, it brings debris with it; if this plugs the hole, the water collects in the hole and becomes a lake. The lake then seeps into the ground and feeds the aquifer again, and all is well. On rare occasions, the aquifer level may drop and the hole may reopen, and where there once was a lake there is suddenly a dry mudflat.

Take a look at Google Maps, here; you can see all the natural sinkhole lakes, which are round, and then the manmade reservoirs which probably were built onto lakes, and are not round.

This is how karst functions. There is nothing wrong with this system. It’s been doing this since before our ancestors were still hiding from giant reptiles. The problem, as I said, is that it’s not very good for humans to live on.

Or, more accurately, I might say the problem is that humans do not know how to live on the karst.

For at least the past thirteen years, we’ve been under significant drought conditions. Not enough rain coming in, despite what we’d have you believe when we cry havoc about all the storms. Florida is also a very attractive place for farming, since the winters are so mild, and we can grow lots of things here that we cannot grow in many other places. All of this farming requires water, and lots of it: when the agriculture was getting started, it was not a problem, because the aquifer was full and seemed a perfect endless reservoir.

We’ve since learned that it is not, but we haven’t learned to slow down.

There are other elements at work here that I do not know as much about. Saltwater intrusion is one: when the fresh aquifer water is low, and it is near the sea, the saltwater will be pulled into the limestone. This does two things: it salinizes the fresh water and it erodes the limestone further. Another is the use of fertilizers, which acidify the groundwater and, again, cause more limestone erosion. The mixture of water and rock is precise, and dictated by nature: when this is out of whack, it all comes crashing in.

Refer to what I wrote above; when there isn’t enough water to support the limestone, it collapses into sinkholes. This has been happening more and more frequently lately, in places where it hadn’t been before, and that is directly due to pumping more water out of the aquifer than it can physically support.

We don’t seem to realize that we stand on water as much as on rock. Without the water, the rock can’t hold us.

setima, sagrei, sir, and a bukkit

Note the Oxford comma in the post’s title. You can have my Oxford commas when you pry them from my cold dead hands, which is important, because this means I can Talk All Southern and still maintain some semblance of grammatical coherency. Sometimes. More importantly, I know how to point out when I see the lack in others, a trick my mother taught me and probably has regretted ever since.

A conversation from yesterday:

MY MOM: “You want some cwafee?”

ME: “Watch out, Ma, yer Jersey’s showing.”

MOM: “My what?”

ME: “Cwafee?”

MOM: “Oh god, did I really do that?”

But she gets her own back, on a regular basis.

ME: “So we’re laughing, we’re joking around, then he turns all serious and says, ya gotta do it like this, and I go very serious too, I’m all, yessir.”

MY MOM: “Sir?”

ME: “Huh?”

MY MOM: “You actually said, ‘yes, sir’ to him?”

ME: “Yeah.”

MY MOM: “You are so Southern sometimes! God!”

This is what happens when English majors are allowed to reproduce, and then produce offspring with a decent grasp of linguistics aided and/or abetted by a walloping big case of dyscalculia. Not that I knew what that was, when I was a kid. Not that anyone else did either.

We get into it about words all the time. It’s a thing with us, a habit, a tradition. We’ll dissect sayings and accents, we’ll pick apart lines on television. Which is why this next item had me, and then my mother, so horrifically outraged.

The best part of Tampa is a little place called Ybor. It was originally Ybor City, its own entity entirely, back a hundred years when Port Tampa was still the port and Henry Plant was drawing railroad schematics and Teddy Roosevelt and his Rough Riders were digging tunnels under the UT hotel in case the Spanish-American war went badly. It looks like the French Quarter in New Orleans, all wrought-iron and brick, but it’s more accurately the Cuban Quarter – well, that and Italian, there’s a lot of Italian history there too. Recently Ybor was decided to be the official historic birthplace of the Cuban sandwich, which ends the sub/hoagie/grinder debate entirely because they are none of them Cubans and, thus, substandard. Ybor is small. It is also very pretty, very old, and very important.

Image shamelessly ganked from the TB Times. I will shoot some of my own before they’re torn down.

The recent to-do concerned the main drag, Seventh Avenue, which is not always actually marked as such within the confines of Ybor proper. It is La Setima, a slangy alternate spelling of septima, which means Seventh. The newer street signs say both Seventh and Setima, one above the other, but the old brown ones ditch the English entirely, which is as it should be.

At least, it was. Until today. The City Council, in possibly the dumbest move in their recent history (and man, have there been some doozies with that lot) decided that, because the RNC is coming, we cannot have one of our most important streets misspelled. They are ignoring a hundred years of tradition and renaming that strip of cobbled brick – down which I drove this very afternoon – La Septima.

I’m so angry I could spit. (Is that Southern enough for you, Mom?)

Nevermind the fact that fancying up the town for the RNC is like having a house redecorated before the ghost of John Belushi throws a frat party. Nevermind that all these outta town tourists are going to be asking how to get to Why-bor City. The council has decided that this one particular quirk, in a town bursting with them, is something that they will not be having with for a moment longer. Because the RNC might make fun of us. I’m shivering in my flip-flops at that notion, I really am.

Besides — if they can say ‘Houston’ wrong in Manhattan, we can bloody well call it Setima.

And so help me god, the next tourist to ask me how to get to “Why-bor City” is being directed onto I-4 and told to turn left after the Plant City exit.

Speaking of Setima and highways, I spent a decent amount of time today on both – heading out across town for therapy, because it is apparently a law of my universe that the quality of a therapist increases in inverse proximity to my house. I bet the shrinks in Alaska are amazing. A friend lives out there – the one who has the frog fear – so I pop by and see her after my sessions.

I hopped into the car, plugged in my music, stowed my ever-present water bottle, and gunned it twenty miles across town, weaving through the suburban assault vehicles and the everpresent construction – all perfectly normal.

Until.

I had a guest. I’m sure you know what this means.

Lady, you drive like a crazy person.

I keep my phone in my pocket when I drive – or in my bag, if I don’t have a pocket handy. I shot that photo while stopped at a particularly long red light. (So don’t worry or fuss.) The long red light was an intersection between a four-lane road, where I was, and an eight-lane road, which I was waiting to cross.

That, of course, is when the anole peeped out from under the windshield wiper and took a good look at me. We crossed the eight-lane road safely and made it a couple of blocks before the little critter started tap-dancing up and down the hood of the car. I’m sure you can guess what happened next.

I pulled over onto a side street, hopped out, grabbed another Useful Paper Bag from the trunk, and set about trying to catch the lizard. It skittered away to the ground and under the car. I rolled the car forward about five feet, hoping I hadn’t squashed it, then hopped back out to replace the bag in the trunk. There, in the same place but on the opposite side as my first anole stowaway, was this new lizard. So I did what I do: caught it, bagged it, folded over the bag, probably scolded it for being difficult while I was catching it, and then lizard and I were on our way.

While I was doing this, a rather unkempt man with a large and darkly-furred beer belly peeking out from under his wifebeater stared from the front step of his house. He didn’t ask me anything. He just watched.

Pal, you live in FLORIDA. If you think a girl with a purple bandana on her head pulling over a car blasting the Beatles to catch a lizard on her windshield wiper is weird, you need to get out more.

The anole was safely released by a lovely large oak tree behind my therapist’s building, and as I folded the bag up I tried to figure out what would be a better lizard-catching apparatus to keep in the car, because clearly this is becoming a theme in my life. The best thing I could think of would be one of those plastic pitchers with a lid that snugly fits into place: no danger of animals getting crumpled, or getting out. I need a lizard bucket, is what.

After my session I met up with my friend, and for a treat we popped down to the nearby burger joint and got ourselves some delicious deep-fried American gastronomic atrocities. While we ate, I told her about a concept I’d learned on the internet, a long time ago. I can’t remember the site where I first read this, but it is called the White Queen Threshold. In Carroll’s book, I think it’s Through the Looking Glass, the White Queen tells Alice: “Why, sometimes I’ve believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast.” The White Queen Threshold, then, is when you don’t have to work on believing the impossible things anymore. You are no longer surprised, whatever happens.

“But that’s our entire lives!” my friend pointed out. “That’s every day for us.”

“Yeah,” I told her, “that’s my Florida version of the theory. We hit the threshold when we’re about six months old and just keep going from there.”

When a man in a dark grey coverall barged in and dashed off behind the counter as though he owned the place, I did not bat an eye. He reappeared and started arguing with the store manager, I assume, over a bucket. HE CAN HAZ BUKKIT? In tones loud enough for everyone to hear, the man explained that he’d come to fix the leaky water heater that morning, and when he left he’d forgotten his bucket, and some tools inside it, and they were not there anymore.

“Must’ve taken them with you,” the manager was saying.

“I left my bucket here and I need to get it back!” the plumber kept telling him. “Now I don’t know what you did with it, but you need to find it!”

The moral of this disjointed jumble of stories is: don’t sit on the hood of a car in heavy traffic, always rescue the lizard, don’t change historic names, own your regionalisms, look calmly upon the unexpected, and never get between a plumber and his bucket.

“You know what else?” my friend said, later on. “Costumes. I am never surprised when I see people in costumes. Doesn’t matter where or when it is. Just, oh, hey, guy in a costume. Whatever.” This is true, too. Pirates and Rough Riders, mostly, and that one memorable time in Ybor with a leprechaun; though, that’s a story for another time.