The White House lawn has developed a growing sinkhole — here’s probably what caused it

A sinkhole that developed on the White House North Lawn in May.

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A sinkhole that developed on the White House North Lawn in May.
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Charlie Spiering/Twitter

  • On Tuesday, White House reporters tweeted photos of a big sinkhole that developed on the North Lawn.
  • Sinkholes are often caused by heavy storms. As rain seeps into cracks in the ground and beneath the sediment, the water carves out a cavern.
  • Washington, DC, saw thunderstorms last week.
  • Sinkholes can happen anywhere conditions are right. In 2013, a 30-foot-wide one opened in the ground in Florida, swallowing a man and his house.

Sinkholes, like the one that recently formed on the White House North Lawn, are really just hidden holes in the ground.

While a sinkhole on the White House lawn may seem unusual, sinkholes overall are fairly common. In May of last year, Mar-a-Lago, the Florida estate where Trump often vacations, also developed a 4-foot by 4-foot sinkhole.

The events that lead to sinkholes are subtle at the ground’s surface, which is why they usually go unnoticed. Sinkholes form when rainwater seeps into a crack in the ground and pools in the sediment below. As water builds up, it starts to hollow out an opening. While that is happening, the soil at ground level may stick together, keeping the surface superficially sturdy.

Once the underground void gets large enough, the surface can suddenly give way, causing what was actually a relatively thin layer of ground to collapse.

Given that Washington, DC, received a lot of rain last week, the White House lawn sinkhole was most likely caused by rainwater.

Sinkholes happen around the world but are more common in places where the ground is made of soft rock like limestone, since rainwater can dissolve soft rock more easily and create caverns. According to the US Geological Survey, about 18% of the US sits on top of this kind of ground.

Sinkholes, which are often slow to form, can be much more formidable than the one on the White House lawn, as seen in this 2008 image in Guangzhou, China:

A sinkhole in Guangzhou, China, in 2008.

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A sinkhole in Guangzhou, China, in 2008.
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Reuters

Some sinkholes have grown to become more than 800 feet wide, and they can be catastrophic. In 2007 in Guatemala City, Guatemala, a cavern eventually opened up into a sinkhole that consumed numerous homes, and three residents went missing.

A sinkhole in Guatemala City, Guatemala, in 2007.

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A sinkhole in Guatemala City, Guatemala, in 2007.
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Stringer/Reuters

In 2013, a 30-foot-wide opened in the ground in Tampa, Florida, swallowing a man and his house. According to the Florida Department of Environmental Protection, sinkholes are common in Florida because the state lies on bedrock made of soft limestone or other carbonate rock that can be eaten away by acidic groundwater.

The White House’s plans to fix the sinkhole on the North Lawn are unclear. If it’s not addressed soon, however, it will most likely get larger.

Jennifer Welsh contributed reporting.