While still a pretty wild phenomenon, news reports of sinkholes spontaneously opening up to devour homes and create panic are not unheard of. That was not the case in 1980 when a couple of these massive geological freaks appeared near the tiny west Texas town of Wink. Even more curious than how they came to be, was that they continued to grow – now wider than two football fields.
Recently, a team of earth science professors from Southern Methodist University utilized a combination of satellite and radar imaging technology to not only identify the potential cause of the sinkholes, but provide a warning as to how bad things could get.
According to Zhong Lu and Jin-Woo Kim, the 4,000 square miles surrounding these sinkholes are showing ground movement that includes sinking and lifting of as much as 40” over the past 30 months.The duo recently published their findings in Scientific Reports.
The common trait shared throughout this region, which is often referred to as the West Texas Permian Basin, is a rich supply of oil. Scientists believe that decades of activity related to drilling for and recovering oil has made the region’s geologic structure, which is heavily comprised of water-soluble salt, limestone and sandstone, unstable.
In addition to drilling, the area has been exposed to a number of injection wells that utilize highly pressurized saltwater or carbon dioxide to help extract oil. These processes, along with freshwater leaks from abandoned wells are thought to be dissolving or weakening many of the underground rock formations.
According to Lu and Kim, this combination of factors could create additional sinkholes. This region has also experienced six small earthquakes since hydraulic fracturing began in 2015. It’s worth noting that thanks to new approaches like injection wells and fracking, the Permian Basin will produce a record 10.5 million barrels a day of oil this year.
The production from this area is credited with playing a key role in keeping gas prices down, helping to fuel dramatic increases in oil exports, and allowing the U.S. to create the largest oil reserve on the planet.