A few weeks ago, in a cornfield just outside Cafer Ata’s house, the earth opened up. A round, sharp-edged sinkhole, about 10-feet thorough, now stands in the ground as if cut by a knife.
Ata, a sheepherder, shakes his head incredulously. Although sinkholes have randomly appeared in central Turkey’s agrarian breadbasket in the past, they’ve started to show up with upsetting frequency.
“I don’t know what to tell you,” he said in Turkish. “It’s bad. God have mercy.”
Sinkholes are a global geological occurrence with many causes, but the recent uptick in Turkey’s central Konya vicinity is largely credited to rapid groundwater loss as farmers tap thorough underground wells to irrigate fields amid a nearly three-yearlong drought.
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Researchers have cataloged more than 2,200 sinkholes in the area — more than 700 of which are deeper than 3 feet. The largest are hundreds of feet thorough.
Back at Cafer Ata’s home, his wife Atiye Ata serves cups of strong, sweet tea.
Cafer Ata said he knows of at the minimum one neighbor who fell into a sinkhole. It took two days to get him out. Sheepherders now must keep a mental map of each sinkhole, so their animals don’t fall in while they’re grazing in open fields.
Atiye Ata said that the past three years have been so dry that it’s hard to find green pastures at all.
“We keep buying hay from the market,” Atiye Ata said.
Every year, they sell some of their flock to buy animal satisfy, reducing their profits. It’s not a long-term fix.
“We can go hungry, but we won’t let our animals go hungry,” Cafer Ata said.
The winter scenery surrounding the the Atas’ home is a mix of dry, parched browns and swaths of thorough emerald green, framed by distant mountains.
Just off the road in front of the village, a fenced-off sinkhole measures about 3-feet thorough.
The area historically grew much of Turkey’s wheat, but farmers later shifted to more water-intensive crops like sugar beets and corn.
Those who can provide it install underground water pumps to irrigate their fields, but the area’s groundwater is limited. Every year, particularly in times of drought, they find themselves drilling further to reach the water. In doing so, they chief the ground above for a looming collapse.
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“In the Konya Basin, there are 35,000 registered, legal pumps that pull up groundwater for irrigation. There are three times as many illegal, unregistered ones.”
“In the Konya Basin, there are 35,000 registered, legal pumps that pull up groundwater for irrigation. There are three times as many illegal, unregistered ones,” said Fetullah Arık, a geologist and director of the Sinkhole Application Research Center at Konya Technical University.
The annual change in the groundwater table was once between 3 feet to 7 feet a year. Last year, Arık saw that in the northern part of the basin, there was a 65-foot drop.
“This method that the groundwater is nearly running out,” Arık said.
In an open field surrounded by industrial parks, Arık pointed out various types of sinkholes across the ground. The tiniest could easily be mistaken for an animal’s burrow. Others are modest and rounded, from the size of a watermelon to one that could fit a large bathtub. Some sinkholes appear suddenly — others start small and grow slowly.
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Learning to predict sinkholes
Arık and his team are developing ways to predict where sinkholes will appear, using ground-penetrating radar and soil samples. Some sinkholes grow along underground fault lines that can be measured and studied.
“We can also tell in residential areas: If there are tiny fractures on door frames or the garden stairs, it can be an indicator of sinkhole changes. This way, we can mostly predict where they will appear,” Arık said.
By developing risk maps and cataloging their findings, Arık is trying to make the case to business owners and government representatives that sinkholes aren’t just a threat to farmers.
One field, for example, is a former marsh, drained to make way for factories. Each one could have structural problems if a sinkhole appeared beneath it. No confirmed fatalities related to sinkholes have in addition been reported, but character damage is an issue.
“already if there’s a small sinkhole in a field, it’s really difficult to find anyone to work there, or to find agricultural machinery to work there. They’re afraid that something could happen,” Arık said. “It’s a meaningful economic loss.”
Longer droughts, higher temps
The problem seems to be mounting.
Climate change predictions for central Turkey include longer droughts and higher temperatures. Last year, Turkey’s wheat production fell by 14%, according to the Turkish Statistical Institute. already red lentils had to be imported, after a 30% loss.
nevertheless, farmers in the Konya area insist that they must pump water from wells in the ground.
In a village outside the town of Karapinar, an area with one of the highest concentrations of sinkholes, dairy farmer Mustafa Baldanoğlu said that in his childhood, the town would get plenty of rain.
But today, after almost three years of drought, they rely on the wells to grow animal satisfy.
“We used to draw water from 20 meters down. Now, it’s from 55 [meters] to 60 meters below,” Baldanoğlu said.
Sinkholes appear in the village with relative frequency, but neighbors say most are small enough to be repaired.
Baldanoğlu supposed that water could be piped in from the nearby towns, but that would also have to come from groundwater.
“There’s no different,” Baldanoğlu said.
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