Massive Cluster of Sinkholes Found Deep in China’s Mountainous Northwest

The network of pockmarks is packed with old-growth forests and giant flying squirrels

49 giant sinkholes discovered in NW China's Shaanxi Province

Sinkholes can cause great devastation—huge chunks of ground swiftly give way only to be swallowed up by the Earth. But they can also be sources of great natural beauty, as in the case of a giant sinkhole cluster recently discovered in the mountains of northwest China, Brian Clark Howard reports for National Geographic.

Researchers discovered the 49 sinkholes clustered close together while surveying the Qinling-Bashan Mountains in China's Shaanxi Province. The pockmarks are contained within a 230 square mile radius, with the largest clocking in at 1,706 feet wide and 1,050 feet deep. To put that in perspective, the Eiffel Tower could easily fit from top to bottom—not to mention this single sinkhole could swallow the Empire State Building if it was laid down sideways, Bec Crew reports for ScienceAlert.

Researchers believe this could be the largest sinkhole cluster ever discovered, according to Lie Ma for China Daily. They rest over a stretch of softer rocks, such as limestone, dolomite and gypsum, Crew reports. These rocks are easily whittled away by underground rivers, resulting occasional collapses of the underground caverns and a pockmarked surface known to geologists as karst topography. These beautiful natural scars have become home to all sorts of rare animals, including giant red Chinese flying squirrels.

The sinkholes aren’t just beautiful environments hosting rare animals: they could also grant new insights into the region’s geological history. As Tongliang Liu, director of the Institute of Karst Geology at the Chinese Academy of Geological Science, tells Ma, future studies of the sinkholes could reveal details about the formation of the mountain range as well as changes in its climate throughout history.

While officials are already working on issuing special protections to the newly discovered sinkholes, the scenic landscape is also tempting people with an eye towards the tourism industry, Howard reports. Considering the majestic sights they provide, it’s no wonder that locals are hoping the sinkholes will be a new draw for tourists from all over the world.

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