On May 22, 2017, a sinkhole opened at Mar-a-Lago, which President Trump calls the “Winter White House.” On May 22, 2018, a sinkhole opened at the actual White House.
For the media and Twitter, it’s been a bottomless pit of puns. “If that’s not a direct sign from … somewhere … people, I don’t know what is,” opines Mashable. “Are memes finally gaining sentience?” asks The Mary Sue. Or is the Earth “trying to do itself in before Scott Pruitt gets the chance?”
Even the New York Times has jumped in with a headline that says in part, “Blame the Swamp. (Really.)”
But what does science say? Are sinkholes becoming more common? Is Trump somehow to blame?
The White House says it is a 'sink hole' on the West lawn. The rest of us are pretty sure that Melania’s escape tunnel caved in. pic.twitter.com/jPJmucW2jB
— Fred Rewey (@GodFadr) May 22, 2018
First and foremost, as PhysOrg noted last year, “a recent spate of huge, sudden-appearing caverns is prompting alarm because they’re happening in places where they shouldn’t, and now seem to be proliferating nationwide.”
If we look globally, it’s clear that there are a growing number of big holes in the ground — and not just because we’re drilling for fossil fuels in more more places. In the Arctic, where human caused global warming is occurring twice as fast as anywhere else, the permafrost is melting fast.
That melting leads to massive shifts in the ground, creating “drunken forests” where trees tilt in all directions, countless sink holes, and even 7,000 underground methane bubbles in Siberia that could explode anytime and create massive caverns.
The appearance of the Siberian bubbles “is most likely linked to thawing permafrost, which is in turn linked to overall rise of temperature on the north of Eurasia during the last several decades,” a Russian Academy of Science spokesperson explained last year.
Of course, neither Mar-a-Lago nor the White House are in the Arctic. In a 2016 article, Accuweather explained, “The science of sinkholes: How heavy rain, drought can help trigger the dangerous phenomenon.”
Basically, in places like Florida, a drought (or other accelerated drainage) means a porous rock like limestone under your property can end up with air-filled cavities. Then a huge rainfall can cause those holes to get filled with wet soil, creating a sink hole. Heavy flooding can also dissolve limestone.
Climate change is making such weather whiplash more common. And indeed, a 2016 study, “The impact of droughts and climate change on sinkhole occurrence” found a “correlation between drought periods and temporal clusters of sinkholes.” It concluded “sinkhole activity is intensified during drought periods, which are expected to increase in the future according to the climatic projections.”
So we can expect more sinkholes in the future pretty much everywhere.
In the specific case of the 2017 Mar-a-Lago sinkhole, an analysis in Scientific American concluded, “A newly-installed water main is the apparent cause,” probably from some leaking. The barrier island it’s built on is “mostly sand” and any significant excess water could simply dissolve it.
In short, it was probably faulty infrastructure.
Indeed, as PhysOrg notes “The usual cause” of sinkholes is “crumbling water, drain and sewer pipes, often neglected by cities with budget problems.” They add, “scientists who study natural sinkholes say the caverns from infrastructure failures are becoming a bigger problem.”
An AP analysis of sinkhole reports in major U.S. cities over a four month period in 2017 found “39 significant sinkholes related to failing infrastructure—a rate of about one every four days.”
The White House isn’t built on limestone or sand, however, but on a swamp. So, the NY Times explains, it is “still susceptible, particularly given the substantial amount of recent rainfall.”
And while we’ve always had rain and always had sinkholes, climate change is driving more intense and prolonged deluges. Another possibility, explains Forbes, is that “The sinkhole could be a result of an old water line that has rusted through and caused water to leak into the White House lawn.”
But if it were poorly maintained infrastructure, then perhaps there is some karma. After all, Republicans have opposed major infrastructure funding for decades — and Trump’s own infrastructure bill has gone nowhere. And that should give all of us a sinking feeling.