No. 5: Guatemala Sinkhole

What could be more surreal than a giant hole opening up beneath your feet? Sinkholes are a phenomenon in which groundwater weakens bedrock, causing it to cave during a storm, and they are not uncommon. In fact, in Florida sinkholes are so common that the state is considering creating a sinkhole insurance program.

Among the more astounding craters this year were one in Tampa that ate a Camry, one in rural Canada that took out a road, one in Milwaukee that swallowed a Cadillac, one in Los Angeles that pulled in a fire truck, and another in China. However, none of these was quite as large, as mysterious in origin, and even as startlingly beautiful as the sinkhole in Guatemala’s capital city.

In the wake of Tropical Storm Agatha on May 30, a perfectly round hole spread from the middle of an intersection in downtown Guatemala City, eventually reaching 66 feet wide and 100 feet deep. The crater formed overnight, stunning scientists and riveting people, as the gaping maw grew large enough to swallow up a three-story clothing factory.

Theories circulated widely. A popular one with Guatemalan media suggested that a steady stream from a broken sewage pipe gnawed at the earth until the surface caved. A scientist disputed the theory, saying that whatever ate away at the earth would have wrecked the pipes long ago. Another scientist insisted that it wasn’t a true sinkhole but a “piping feature” caused by the pumice fill, or ash flows, from ancient volcanic eruptions. The strange phenomenon became a search sensation as armchair scientists and alien conspiracy theorists puzzled over it.

Soon, Guatemalans got sick of all the gawking global media attention over the hole and its peculiar symmetry — so much so that one local paper temporarily banned sinkhole stories. The country had real problems to focus on: Pacaya volcano’s ash cloud in May, followed almost immediately by Tropical Storm Agatha, which in addition to the sinkhole caused landslides, left thousands homeless, and killed 180 people across Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador.

Months later, Guatemala’s sinkhole had been upstaged by an even larger (130 feet wide and 65 feet deep) “mystery” sinkhole in a residential area of the German town Schmalkalden. The German pit sucked down a car and a garage door, and forced nine families to evacuate.

–Lisa Hix