Research Matters

Research Matters

Kansas Sinkholes

Underground salt beds near Hutchinson are being dissolved by groundwater to create sinkholes that deform US Highway 50.

Aired March 8, 2009

2 minutes 3.7 MB) | Download mp3


A young researcher maps sinkholes that undermine a vital Kansas highway. From the University of Kansas, this is Research Matters. I'm Brendan Lynch.

Underground salt beds near Hutchinson are being dissolved by groundwater to create sinkholes that deform US Highway 50. Now, A.J. Herrs, a first year Master's student in KU's Department of Geology, is charting the sinkholesprecisely with state-of-the-art technology.

HERRS: There are two prominent sinkholes where U.S. 50 is being affected. It's a major transportation corridor to connect Hutchinson with the Interstate. It's been repaved several times over the past decade because of the subsidence.

With funding from KU's Transportation Research Institute, Herrs is using a remote sensing system known as LiDAR, for Light Detection and Ranging. With this high-tech gear, Herrs creates three-dimensional images of the sinkholes on the surface of the terrain.

HERRS: Basically, we set up the scanner on a tripod at several points in the study area and we just tell it where to scan and it does all the work. By doing that, we can spatially constrain where the sinkholes are and how fast they're sinking. If we know the subsidence rate, we can start to plan for budget reasons and also for just when you should go out and resurface or even build a new road if you need to.

The KU researcher is working with the Kansas Department of Transportation to save taxpayers money on roadwork, and also to make driving U.S. 50 a safer journey. Additionally, Herr's research will provide greater knowledge of the state's geography.

HERRS: Long ago in the Permian there was a large sea that's since evaporated of course, and that's created the large salt beds that we see in the subsurface of Kansas. The main area where all these problems occur is where the Hutchinson salt member underlies the surface, and that takes up about 37,000 square miles of the subsurface of Kansas. On the eastern side it's 200 feet below the surface and it can be up to 600 feet below the surface toward the center.

For more on mapping of sinkholes near Hutchinson, log onto Research Matters dot K-U dot E-D-U. For the University of Kansas, I'm Brendan Lynch.

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Kansas Sinkholes

Sinkholes caused by ancient salt deposits undermine a vital Kansas highway. Now a young researcher is tackling the problem with super-modern technology.

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