The word has the harsh consonant sounds of a Slovic swear word. But it’s appropriate in mixed company. (Isn’t this an antiquated phrase, considering what is deemed appropriate–or at least uncensored– in any company at any time and any medium? But I digress.)

You’ll hear this word karst on the news for a few days now–until the story from Florida isn’t new anymore.

But like other “odd” events in the news, sinkholes over karst topography are likely to become less odd in the reports of how the short history and small stories of human lives intersect with the Big Story millennial themes of geology and climate.

When I hear the word karst I think limestone. It is a soft layered rock deposited over the ages and consists of chalk in one form or another–the calcareous mineral remains of mostly very small and very abundant creatures in the shallow seas that once covered what is now the southern Appalachians.

We experience karst especially in the “ridge and valley” province of the commonwealth. It forms the eroded valley floors, like that of the Shenandoah and Tennessee Valleys, that provided a relatively level path for travel of the early pioneers moving west.

The ridges consist of more resistant sediments–sandstone and conglomerate and such.

The entire state of Florida–unique in this way among the US states–lies over underground caves and passageways. Much of Missouri does as well.

If you want to understand just what the earth looks like underneath the collapsed Tampa bedroom, and to understand why this might happen again, read “Human Activity or Revenge of the Karst” at CS Monitor.

Other good background info in the national atlas and of course, on wikipedia.

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Fred First holds masters degrees in Vertebrate Zoology and physical therapy, and has been a biology teacher and physical therapist by profession. He moved to southwest Virginia in 1975 and to Floyd County in 1997. He maintains a daily photo-blog, broadcasts essays on the Roanoke NPR station, and contributes regular columns for the Floyd Press and Roanoke's Star Sentinel. His two non-fiction books, Slow Road Home and his recent What We Hold in Our Hands, celebrate the riches that we possess in our families and communities, our natural bounty, social capital and Appalachian cultures old and new. He has served on the Jacksonville Center Board of Directors and is newly active in the Sustain Floyd organization. He lives in northeastern Floyd County on the headwaters of the Roanoke River.

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