Friday, April 05, 2013

That sink(holing) feeling

When I was young, there was a modestly popular, trippy little novelty tune called “The Eggplant that Ate Chicago.”

Now, given my many relatives in Chicagoland, I have pretty good reason to believe that no eggplant has (as yet) eaten Chicago.

But plenty of places in the country are apparently being eaten alive.

Around these parts, a lot of attention has been paid to the erosion on Cape Cod, which has been working its way through the barrier beach at Chatham for the last few years, condemning a bunch of summer cottage to the junk pile.

Fortunately, the Cape will be around for a while longer – most of it, anyway. I hate to think of what the profile of Massachusetts will look like when the Cape gets washed out to sea. We’ll look like all those rectangular states out West. Ugh!

Anyway, last fall, it was Sandy wreaking havoc on the Jersey Shore, Staten Island, and the Queens. All those Staten Island wetland homes that went back to nature. And was there a weirder (or sadder) sight than that of the downed roller coaster in NJ?

Back in what we’re still calling the Bay State, Plum Island on the North Shore is being reclaimed. It seems that with every major storm, a few more houses on Plum Island – houses that used to be well set back from the ocean – fall over, or are – post-storm – knocked over by the government.

Not to be outdone, on Boston’s South Shore, the same major storms that put the crunch on Plum Island do a number of Scituate. House overboard!

I feel really bad for those who lose their homes by the sea, by the sea, by the beautiful sea. And by the rivers, by the rivers, by the beautiful rivers, which has also been known to happen.

Living as I do on reclaimed land – the flat of Beacon Hill and Boston’s Back Bay are the American Amsterdam (they don’t call it Back Bay for nothing) – I occasionally worry about a Sandy-like event striking Boston.  We’re underwater in every 100 Year Storm graphic I see of our city.

Maybe it’s time to move to higher ground…

It’s not always water world, of course.

Think about all those Western and West Coast fires that routinely whip through neighborhoods, and with a seemingly willy-nilly selection process burn to the ground all the houses on this side of the street while sparing the houses on that side of the street.

Then there is Centralia, Pennsylvania, what’s now a ghost town that was built over a mine where a fire has been smoldering for over fifty years.

And don’t get me going on fracking in what that might bring about. (On the upside, if the earth just exploded, it probably wouldn’t be a bad way to go.)

But I think my personal favorite – if that’s the right word – among  creepy natural ways to lose your home is via sinkhole.

There is really something almost Biblical – Jonah and the whale-ish – about being swallowed alive by the earth. 

Come to think of it, I’ve had a longstanding fascination with the possibility of being swallowed alive.

Certainly, as a child I watched with rapt attention every episode of Jungle Jim, Superman, and The Lone Ranger that featured quicksand.

But sinkholes that grab you when you’re innocently asleep, under the covers in your PJs...

How completely and utterly horrifying it must have been to be the fellow in Florida who was unluckily abed in the half of the house that fell into the sinkhole. And how completely and utterly horrifying it must have been to be the brother of that fellow in Florida, the brother who was luckily abed in the half of the house that didn’t fall into the sinkhole.

I wasn’t aware until I read a recent article by David Owen in The New Yorker that Florida is the sinkhole center of the universe. (Note: to read the full article, you have to be a subscriber. If you are, you’ll have the privilege of reading online via a system that seems to me the technological equivalent of slithering around with microfilm.)

In 1999, a four-thousand-acre Florida lake “disappeared down a hole, like a bathtub emptying in to a drain.”

Florida, as it happens, is built on bedrock that’s not particularly bedrock-like, but, rather:

…is mostly limestone and dolostone, is the hardened remnant of a thick accumulation of deceased sea creatures, which sifted onto the seabed for aeons, at a time when sea levels were much higher than they are today. During subsequent aeons, slightly acidic rainwater permeated the ground and riddled the rock with conduits and caverns and underground streams, and from time to time the overlying strata collapse or subside. 

Forget “Look, Ma, no cavities.”

Florida is riddled with them.

The Florida Speleological Society has likened the state’s geology to “Swiss chees coated with oil.”

Fortunately, death-by-sinkhole is relatively rare.

And fortunately, things pretty much stay put.

Sometimes, it’s a matter of the aquifer buoying the ground up. Bad news when there’s a big draw on the water table, as when the strawberry farmers tried to salvage their crop by pumping well-water on it to protect it from freezing.

Of course, just as a drop in the water table can wreak havoc in Florida, so, too can too much rainfall.

Talk about a no-win situation.

Fingers crossed for my winter-in-Florida cousins that the worst thing they ever experience is an occasional alligator basking within view.

Meanwhile, we all better look out for the eggplant that ate Chicago.

You never know when nature is going to turn on us.

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