Daniel Susco
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Quick Refresher: This Is The Difference Between Potholes and Sinkholes

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I had a bit of a chuckle today when I read a headline from The Buffalo News: “Pothole filling vehicle engulfed by sinkhole in Niagara Falls.” The specialty truck, which has a long attachment on the front and two large vats on the back, is pictured with its front end buried up to the wheel wells in the pavement in the sinkhole, which formed after a water main broke nearby.

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Of course, the responses to the story on Twitter were similarly amused, all commenting on the irony of a hole-filling machine getting stuck in a hole.

However, it occurred to me after a moment that it really isn’t that ironic, because this was a sinkhole, and not a pothole, which are both very different.

So, since I initially had gotten the two mixed up, here is the difference between sinkholes and potholes. There are really two main things that set them apart: first in how they are made and second in how dangerous they are.

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Let’s start with potholes. These are formed due to water seeping into cracks in the road surface (which form normally when vehicles drive over it) and then freezing. After freezing and thawing a few times, an air pocket forms under the pavement, and the weight of cars running over it causes the paved cover to collapse, making a pothole. Potholes are generally not too dangerous, though they can pop tires and damage vehicles if deep enough, run over at high enough speeds, or hit often over time.

Sinkholes, on the other hand, aren’t formed by gradual freezing and thawing, though they are due to water. Generally speaking, sinkholes are formed due to water flowing under an area, either eroding the rock over time or sweeping away subsurface material. In the case above, water from the broken main line swept away the dirt under the road until it was thin enough for the heavy truck to break through. Sinkholes are much more dangerous than potholes, as they can be much deeper, be filled with water, have sheer sides, and collapse suddenly.

News Sources: Minnesota Department of Transportation, Conserve Energy FutureBuffalo News