An enormous sinkhole that appeared on a plot of mining land in Chile’s Atacama Desert region has continued to grow. The gigantic cavity was first seen on July 30 in a rural area outside the town of Tierra Amarilla, 413 miles (665 kilometers) north of the capital, Santiago, where the Canadian company Lundin Mining operates the Alcaparrosa copper mine. It measured 82 feet (25 meters) in diameter and 650 feet (200 meters) in depth and now measures 160 feet across (50 meters). The cause of its occurrence is yet to be determined and is being investigated.
The startling phenomenon has been described variously by different news agencies as a sinkhole “large enough to swallow France’s Arc de Triomphe” ( New York Post ), “wide enough to swallow the White House” ( Live Science ), “approximately as deep as the length of two soccer fields” ( Vice), and “deeper than the Space Needle in Seattle is tall” ( CNET).
That Sudden Sinking Feeling: Natural Occurrence or Manmade Disaster?
Sinkholes occur naturally in areas of poor external drainage where groundwater gathers and dissolves the rock, causing underground caverns or spaces. These can collapse quite dramatically, despite the surface appearing stable. However, human mining activity has also been known to cause these pits and they are in fact a pretty regular occurrence near old and active mines where large amounts of rock and ore have been extracted.
An aerial view of Berezniki, Russia, in the aftermath of a mining disaster that caused a sinkhole and flooding ( andrewgiba / Adobe Stock)
Although they form over years, sinkholes often open up quite suddenly, pulling humans, cars, homes and whole streets down into their depths. Sometimes they keep growing for years after first opening up. They happen all over the world and can have terrifying consequences if they occur within inhabited areas. Some of the worst sinkhole disasters have happened in China, Russia, Guatemala, and the United States . The sinkhole in the Russian city of Berezniki is massive and has been growing ever wider and deeper since it first opened in 1986, and is slowly swallowing up the entire city!
Investigating the Chilean Sinkhole
The sinkhole near Tierra Amarilla came to the notice of Chile’s National Service of Geology and Mining (Sernageomin) on July 30, and it sent a team of specialists to the site, director David Montenegro announced. The team has cordoned off a 328-foot (100 meter) security perimeter around the hole.
“There is a considerable distance, approximately 200 meters (656ft), to the bottom. We haven’t detected any material down there, but we have seen the presence of a lot of water,” the Guardian reports Montenegro as saying. The work site of the nearby mine has been temporarily closed by the agency.
Meanwhile, Lundin Mining released a statement to the effect that the sinkhole hadn’t affected any workers or community members and had remained stable after first opening up. “The closest home is more than 600m (1,969ft) away, while any populated area or public service are almost a kilometer away from the affected zone,” said the statement . It added that the area had been immediately secured, the relevant authorities informed, and a technical investigation was underway to determine the cause of the sinkhole.
A sinkhole of over 60 meters (200 feet) opened up in Guatemala City in 2010 (horslip5 / CC BY 2.0 )
Local Discontent against Lundin Mining
However, Lundin’s assurances aren’t being well received by the local community. According to Vice, Cristóbal Zúñiga, Tierra Amarilla’s mayor, stated that the local community had always feared that the company’s mining activities were a disaster in the making. “Today it happened in a space that’s an agricultural property, but our greatest fear now is that this could happen in a populated place, on a street, in a school.”
He added that the daily blasting and strong tremors from the mine “have destroyed our houses and our streets, and today, destroyed the ground.” The worry is that the Alcaparrosa mine could have flooded below the ground, destabilizing the surrounding area and posing a danger of a wider cave-in from the existing sinkhole.
Zúñiga held the Chilean government and Sernageomin to blame, along with the mining company. He pointed out that this wasn’t the first time the company’s blasting activities had breached its operational permit, mentioning a 2021 violation in a different mine in the country.
Investigations need to quickly determine whether the Alcaparrosa sinkhole is natural or manmade and whether the mine is in fact flooded below the ground. If such is the case, it poses great danger to the lives of the miners and the Tierra Amarilla community.
Top image: Giant sinkhole that has opened up in the Atacama Desert, Chile. Source: Sernageomin
By Sahir Pandey