Guatemala: First, volcanic eruption; then, devastating tropical storm


Update, 2pm PT: HOW TO HELP, after the jump. Above, this photo just posted to the Guatemalan Government's Flickr feed shows a spontaneous sinkhole ("hundimiento") 20 meters deep and 15 wide that appeared today in Zone 2 of Guatemala City, after overwhelming saturation of rains from tropical storm Agatha. Local press reports that it swallowed an entire 3-story building. Not Photoshop, sadly: these happen from time to time during major storms in part because of unstable geology, and in part, bad urban engineering—read more about it in the comments. A break in the over-stressed sewage pipes after the storm was the cause for this one. There are rumors of other sinkholes now forming nearby. See it on Google Maps. (News reports: Prensa Libre, and blogs)

ninoth.jpg Guatemala is in a state of crisis today after twin natural calamities struck: First, on May 27 the Pacaya volcano (just 19 miles from the capital) woke up in a bad mood. Lava flowed, black sand and rock and ash spewed everywhere. A newscaster covering the news near the volcano was killed by flying rocks.

Two days later on May 29, tropical storm "Agatha" struck, destroying homes, causing floods, and creating tens of thousands of internally displaced. Infrastructure in this country—where the majority live in poverty—is very poor, and ill-equipped to handle such a double blow. As of last night, official numbers on storm: about 30,000 "refugees," close to 120,000 evacuated, 93 dead and rising. Guatemala's one international airport has been has been closed for days, and just as it prepares to reopen today, there's word of new volcanic activity.

The poor always suffer the most when events like this happen, and the two events together caused surreal conditions: knee-deep black sand mud, and "instant concrete" that forms when rain meets ash, clogging up drains and fragile sewage systems. Said a friend on Twitter, "Water and sand everywhere... it's like the beach, only a lot less fun."

Today I learned that in the rural K'iche Maya pueblo where I volunteer with a non-profit, a local committee of community leaders is organizing to walk to other villages in the region, and check on damage, injuries, casualties. In rural areas, phones still aren't working, and many communities are only accessible by foot.

Guatemala isn't the only Central American nation affected: at least 10 are dead in El Salvador, and Honduras has declared a state of emergency.

Inset above, an image from the Guatemalan government's Flickr feed, of a child evacuated from a village near the volcano.

Here are documents related to the disaster (in Spanish). Reading and photos, and a guide to Twitter accounts and hashtags: Antigua Daily News, "Stop, Agatha, Stop!" And here's an item by Juliana Rincón Parra in Global Voices.


Renata Avila of Global Voices in Guatemala says,

I think that the best way to help now is to save the energy to help later: after the storm I am pretty sure we will face a nutrition crisis again because of lost crops and also a titanic task to rebuild communities. But if someone wants to donate in kind stuff here are the list of centers collecting items, and people can donate to These kids are amazing and are NOT corrupt.
I second the understanding that food crisis is imminent, and the best place to focus a desire to help. I traded texts with the K'iche village yesterday, and word is that most of the corn crops were devastated throughout that part of the highlands. I'd expect similar throughout the land. We're talking about a nation in which a large number of indigenous communities are still subsistence maize farmers, and Guatemala was already in the middle of an economic crisis and a hunger crisis—the success or failure of a corn crop can be a matter of life or death.

(PHOTOS: Top, Fotos: Paulo Raquec. Inset, Foto Presidencia/Eduardo González)


  1. wow, did this just happened?? That’s a really really weird sink hole in the flicker feed. I wonder how does that happen.

    1. @willy and others:

      1) it’s not Photshopped or otherwise hoaxed
      2) This is not a photo from 2007.

      The phenomenon of “hundimientos,” or rain-flooded earth during disaster-level storms just opening up and swallowing roads and buildings, is something endemic to Guatemala because of the local geology. I’m not a geologist, but I’ve spent a lot of time there. There’s a lot of limestone, urban development on top of what used to be cave systems, lots of volcanoes, etc. So this does happen. If any geologists are reading this and have time to explain some of the science, that would be great. But yeah, it happens.

      Here is a related news report from today in Prensa Libre (Spanish). but more here.

      1. Replying to comment #7:

        The photo of the 2007 sinkhole on the National Geographic News website isn’t “Photoshopped or otherwise hoaxed” either.

        When I first opened this page, there were only 3 comments, the second of which is the link to the Flickr photo, which includes no identifying
        information. I spent some time in awe closely studying it, then googled ‘Guatemala sinkhole’ looking for more info, and found the 2007 photo.

        Unfortunately just then, I got a minor-emergency phone call and had to rush off without having time to compare the two photos, and posted that
        comment in haste. At that point there wasn’t a 2:00 pm update on my unrefreshed BB tab, nor any mention of a sinkhole in your original post.

        Having had a chance now to look at the two photos again, obviously they’re different; but at first glance, both of them being nearly perfectly
        circular, I thought they might be the same, and old news.

        Note to self: THINK, then post. THINK, THEN post!

    2. Completely different one. The weird thing, is that they are aligned (and actually not that far from eachother), which means they’re part of the same faulty sewer system…

  2. This looks photoshopped. It’s too round and perfect. If it is real, then it’s sad and tragic.

    1. sadly, it´s not photoshoped. i live in guatemala city and this is the second sinkhole occurence in les than 4 years. and yes, we all wonder why do they look perfectly rounded as if it was made by a drilling machine.

    2. I’m guatemalan, and I am sorry to say it is not a hoax. It’s true. It was lack of rural planning. THis was a badly built sewage system and therefore the house had no real foundation. We’ve seen it happen over and over again.

  3. I hope that this is a terrible hoax. It seems somewhat contrived to me. I feel for the people in Guatemala.

  4. Holy Crap! Holes like that have opened up on more then one occasion? What a freaky phenomenon. So deep and so round, they do look like something out of a science fiction movie. Sad too. No way you could escape or survive one of those.

  5. Yeah, it’s real — AP and Time have photos, though it’s not possible to tell from the AP shot just how deep the hole is. Guatemala has a history of absurdly deep sinkholes that suddenly appear, generally as the result of long-term erosion occurring within poorly-compacted, artificially-leveled soil. Poor stormwater system maintenance is often at the heart of the problem, with erosion slowly eating away at the soil until a major storm finishes the job and the roadbed infrastructure collapses.

    1. And not just on Earth: here’s a little video about Karst topography on Saturn’s moon Titan: probably a magical land of canyons made of methane ice, with Saturn looming crazy large in the sky above the pits, canyons, sinkholes and valleys:


  6. This is real. It’s a phenomena known as Karst Topography. It happens anywhere there is limestone rich soils, a lot of sinkholes form in NorthEast Pennsylvannia, where I’m from, as well as down near Pittsburgh. Our sinkholes in PA mostly happen due to the removal of coal.

    Basically, groundwater (or over-saturated soils) erode the limestone which forms caverns. Once the water moves away from the area (after the storm, the waters will run off into streams, etc) the caverns are exposed underground. Without the pressure of the water, the Earth cannot support the load above it. If there is developments above the cavern, sinkholes will likely form.

    Big holes like this are the exception, but are VERY real and extremely dangerous.

  7. The mudslides are a huge problem in volcanic areas. Technically they’re called lahars and are a mix of water and volcanic ash which come sliding down the mountain side. As they get bigger and denser they can pick up enormous objects and hurl them with tremendous forces; there’s practically nothing that can stop them.

    And when the mud stops moving it quickly becomes like cement, entombing anything underneath.

    The 1980 eruption of Mt. St. Helens was associated with some immense lahars which picked up some HUGE rocks and carried them for miles – devastating everything downstream:

    Mt. Rainier to the North of MSH is also known to produce colossal lahars which would head straight for Seattle if the mountain were to wake up.

    As for that sinkhole – wow. Any news what was on top of it?

    1. Exactly 40 years ago, May 31, 1970 a 7.9 ocean earthquake off the coast of Peru caused the collapse of the north wall of Mount Huascaran. The mountainside – ice, water, mud, rock – ran nine miles down a river, burying Yungay and several other towns. Over 20,000 people disappeared.

  8. that sinkhole is seriously one of the most terrifying real things i’ve ever seen.

  9. We tried to tell them that building Guatemala on the Hellmouth was a bad idea, but did they listen?

  10. While I’m not familiar with Karst topography I have spent the past 20 years building and maintaining large civil infrastructure and have a few thoughts on what happened here.

    Stormwater systems fall into two categories – collector and interceptor. Collection systems service individual properties, Interceptors are fed by collectors and are generally very large and very deep.

    Using my own reference area of Vancouver, local storm water collection starts at 150mm at the house and 300mm – 1200mm on the street depending where it is in the overall system. From there, it feeds into an interceptor system that you can drive a car in.

    My guess is that a large interceptor sewage main was tunneled underneath Guatemala City, probably 40 to 70 years ago. Localized collector systems were subsequently installed and tied into the interceptor main by digging down to install a manhole. The perfectly round hole suggests the back fill material washed into the interceptor pipe once it was breached.

    Somebody else referenced the recent sinkhole in Quebec but I’m pretty convinced this is a result of poor infrastructure maintenance.

    1. I believe your assessment is quite correct. Guatemala is well known for poor infrastructure and corrupt politicians. I am no expert, but I am sure that the fact that the country sits on a spot where 3 tectonic plates meet and we have constant earthquakes and mudslides. If we could only find oil in all of this…but I am sure that would be cursed as well!.

  11. I hope the rumors about other holes forming nearby prove to be without foundation.

  12. There’s a man lying on the ground by the pole in the NE quadrant… anybody know his story? Is he lying there dead, or what?

    1. @WoodE Yeah I was thinking the same thing, but he looks like a photographer to me. Rather than concentrating all of his body weight on the edge of a sinkhole he’s doing the smart thing by laying down to take a photo so it doesn’t give way.

  13. @Jim Conley. Thanks for the explanation. So the area we see that “sank out” was excavated to that diameter to make an interceptor? Then it just ate its way down?

  14. Anyone knows what’s at the bottom? Is it a huge cavern or something? It looks really dark…

  15. I estimate eight hours before some cleric blames this string of catastrophes on scantily clad and/or promiscuous women.

    But in all seriousness, I hope this is the end of the devastation.

  16. jeez, that was one killer chicken phall. I’ve had bad mornings after, but nothing block destroying. which brand of lager was involved?

  17. This is terrifying. Does anyone know how quickly these things form? (I mean the disaster ‘hole appears and things fall in’ part, not the gradual subsurface erosion part.) Is there a rumbling and a slow slide, or does the ground just suddenly drop away?

    1. What’s at the bottom you ask?

      You will find a blue police box surrounded by Homo-Reptilians. ;)

  18. I just did a really rough translation of the Prensa Libre article. Sorry about the awkward syntax.

    A Collapsed Building Becomes A Sinkhole in Zone 2
    By Carolina Gamazo

    A three-story building that was used as a tailor-shop collapsed tonight and produced an hundimiento (sinkhole) at sixth street and eleventh avenue in the New City neighborhood, zone 2.

    The collapse was caused by a break in the sewage pipes, which formed a hole that is approximately 20 meters deep and 15 meters in diameter, which then caused the building to sink.

    The hundimiento is similar to the one that was produced three years ago in the San Antonio neighborhood in zone 6.

    According to police reports, the building was found empty and no one was injured in the collapse.

    Following emergency protocols, people living in nearby buildings were evacuated and moved to shelters.

    “We have created a circle of 150 meters around the hundimiento where neither people nor vehicles can pass, and those that live in the houses within this circle have been moved because of the established international protocol, which says that there should be 200 meters of space (around a sinkhole)” explained Montejo.

    1. Hey thanks for that, step, and thanks to others who contributed knowledge on the factors that caused this — really appreciate the informed, knowledgeable comments here! I’ve updated the post accordingly.

  19. That’s not a sinkhole, that was clearly created by Superman, diving underground on the way to Lex Luthor’s secret HQ.

  20. Let’s not focus on whether or not the photo of the sinkhole is real or photoshop’d, but the fact that real tragedy struck Guatemala and El Salvador and hundreds of thousands of people are suffering. I work in Central America on literacy and public health initiatives & can tell you all from personal experiences that these countries are *still* recovering from Hurrican Mitch & this new hurricane (plus volcanic activity) will cripple these countries even further.

    Still feel like making lame comic book jokes now?

  21. Guatemala city is not built over a karstic type geological formation.

    It is built over Pleistoscene volcanic ash deposits originating from a series of pyroclastic collapses of the Amatitlan caldera between 23,000 and 300,000 B.P. Of which Pacaya is the latest incarnation of the caldera’s volcano. And to tell the truth if/when Pacaya blows it’s top it will literally wipe out Guatemala city off the map.

    Guatemala (the country) does have Karstic formation but these are mainly in the northern part of the country (Peten, Izabal, Alta Verapaz and Quiche). Not on the volcanic southern part of Guatemala where Guatemala city is.

    For more information on Guatemala city’s geology see here:
    USGS page on Guatemalan volcanoes scroll down to Amatitlan Caldera.

    More on Amatitlan caldera and Pacaya for the curious (PDF).

    In this case from reading both the Prensa Libre and La Hora articles the most likely cause for the sinkhole was soil saturation from a damaged sewer pipe. Incidentally zone 2 is one of the older parts of Guatemala city. Looking at the overhead photos, I can’t really determine how near this sinkhole is to one of Guatemala City’s Barranco’s that have been made by rivers cutting through the ash deposits. The sinkhole in 2007 was pretty near to the edge of one of those barrancos when it collapsed.

    My parents who are still in Guatemala and where my mother has been working on the algae bloom in Lake Atitlan. Were lucky to make it back to Guatemala city before Agatha’s effects closed the roads. Also my father has had a fun time sweeping of the ash off their house roof which like a lot of roofs in Guatemala is very flat. Wet volcanic ash is heavy stuff.

  22. I saw one of these in Center City Philadelphia when a giant water main blew ten or fifteen years ago.

    It was awesome because you could look down and count the levels of infrastructure tunnels; electrical & cable TV, water pipes, sewers, light rail, etc… I counted twelve distinct layers.

    The Academy of Natural Sciences was at the bottom of the hill, and their big electrical transformer room in the sub-basement got flooded. Ka-BOOM!

  23. An additional observation photo at top is authentic if you look at the roofs of the houses around the sinkhole you can see the ash fall from Pacaya’s recent eruption. It’s the dark greyish stuff covering the concrete roofs and accumulating in the grooves of sheet metal roofing of some of the houses surrounding the sinkhole.

  24. Produced by natural local conditions, the effects of which were exacerbated and enhanced by human activity?

  25. Landslides are a longstanding problem in Guatemala. If there is one constant to travel in
    Guatemala during the rainy season is landslides blocking or undermining roads during the rainy season. Guatemala does have a problem with people building in places where anybody taking a sane look at local terrain would decide that to build their was downright idiotic. In the case of Zone 2 collapse it looks more like leaking sewer or maybe water main is the cause.

    BTW Magnum Finger the photo in the article you are linking to is from the 2007 sinkhole. But otherwise they’ve got their fact more or less right although I’d probably quibble on their rumors statement. They could have checked the Guatemalan news accounts. Three story building did collapse into sinkhole. Was apparently being used as clothes factory.

    A couple more Guatemalan news accounts.
    From Siglo Veintiuno –> different angle and consistent with Guatemala government overhead photo.
    From El Periodico includes a wider angled overhead photo and eyewitness account roughly translated below:

    Pablo Taracena 21 years old neighbor of the house that sank “Mama don’t make the sign of a toilet because it didn’t sink like vortex it sank at once. I was there I saw and felt it. I was watching MTV when I heard the power lines tensing I went to the window and saw how the light-posts were giving way being pulled by the cables one pulled by the other. Then I heard the slam of the collapse. Do you know how it feels? Have you ever been in a elevator that drops abruptly? The movement of the ground was exactly like that. And of course much stronger a drop, aloud noise and temblor and getting out of the house. Is it safe place? Nothing is safe, that hole is still collapsing.

  26. my sister in law lives in zone 18 of Guatemala…i asked her the same question…how does that happen?

    she said the sink hole is caused by lack of planning when they were making the drainage systems

  27. That hole looks like it was cut (crop circle style) by a particle beam device from orbit.

    Just look at how perfectly round it is, and the solid smooth sides of the hole, going down.

    Just look at it.

    1. I think you’ll find that an optical illusion is making the hole seem deeper than it really is. Still, wouldn’t want to be anywhere near it.

  28. Video from the AP on Youtube…

    Situation could have been far worse if the people at the factory had still been at work when it collapsed. Collapsed only one hour after let out for the day…

    I will bet that if you looked at one of the nearby barrancos you would find a spot where volcanic ash is washing out of a cliff or a slope…

    I can recall seeing that circular pattern in other washouts in Guatemala where soil has been undermined….

  29. Find similar incidents, several in US at “”

  30. I’m guatemalan and I was very frustrated not being able to help. Now I know how. Thank you for all of this information.

    Guatemala is in my prayers


  32. Ok, question now is what to fill it with? Looks like you could dump the city landfill in there and still have room for plenty of other stuff like debris from construction sites etc…one thing is for sure, no one should ever build over that place ever again! Hmmm, radioactive waste?

  33. This type of sink hole happens anywhere you have lots of limestone or other permeable rock. Most of Florida comes to mind. There’s not a lot you can do to prevent them.

    There are extensive cave systems, and drainage routes that cause large rooms to form. When the water seeps through and causes the roof of these rooms to collapse, you get this type of sink hole. In this case, the room is very deep underground and the overlying soil is mostly loose.

    It doesn’t have anything to do with storm water drainage, water, or sewer systems. It’s an easy mistake to make because that’s their usual cause in the US and EU.

  34. Christ, what a sinkhole.

    (not making light of the tragedy here, just felt it needed to be said)

  35. The mudslides are a huge problem in volcanic areas. Technically they’re called lahars and are a mix of water and volcanic ash which come sliding down the mountain side. — Probably yes.

    But one should realize that the real reason why this happened is entirely because of nature, although it was said that 2 building were swallowed in this sinkhole. All the questions answered in Guatemala Sinkhole

  36. I lived near the volcano(pacaya) in Antigua for 10 years and the volcano has been doing this since 1965. Although the tropical storm and volcano are interesting and sad for the victims it is a far cry from a calamity. There are many other problems worldwide which deserve more attention such as the slow effort to rebuild Haiti.

    1. Sinrah:

      I lived in Guatemala for 31 years. You got your volcanoes crossed up.

      If you were living in Antigua you had Agua (dormant) on the southeast and Fuego (Active) and Acatenango (active) on the southwest. Fuego is the active volcano you can see from Antigua.
      The view of Pacaya from Antigua is blocked by Agua.

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