What is a sinkhole?

A sinkhole, also known as a cenote, sink, sink-hole, shakehole, swallet, swallow hole, or doline (the different terms for sinkholes are often used interchangeably), is a depression or hole in the ground caused by some form of collapse of the surface layer. Some are caused by karst processes—for example, the chemical dissolution of carbonate rocks or suffosion processes.


Sinkholes vary in size from 1 to 600 m (3.3 to 2,000 ft) both in diameter and depth, and vary in form from soil-lined bowls to bedrock-edged chasms. Sinkholes may form gradually or suddenly, and are found worldwide.

On 2 July 2015, scientists reported that active pits, related to sinkhole collapses and possibly associated with outbursts, were found on the comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko by the Rosetta space probe.

Sinkholes are frequently linked with karst landscapes. In such regions, there may be hundreds or even thousands of sinkholes in a small area so that the surface as seen from the air looks pock-marked, and there are no surface streams because all drainage occurs subsurface. Examples of karst landscapes dotted with numerous enormous sinkholes are the Khammouan Mountains (Laos) and Mamo Plateau (Papua New Guinea).

The largest known sinkholes formed in sandstone are Sima Humboldt and Sima Martel in Venezuela.

Some sinkholes form in thick layers of homogenous limestone. 

Their formation is facilitated by high groundwater flow, often caused by high rainfall; such rainfall causes formation of the giant sinkholes in the Nakanaï Mountains, on the New Britain island in Papua New Guinea. On the contact of limestone and insoluble rock below it, powerful underground rivers may form, creating large underground voids.