This essay is part of the Volumetric Sovereignty forum.
“We’re the sinkholes. / And we’re coming to your town. / We’re the Sinkholes, baby. / Going to level it down. / You can count all of us. / There goes a school bus. / We’ll swallow your house. / Like a boa swallows a mouse.”–Official Sinkhole Song by McMurdo Station, 2013.

n the 7th of October 2018, without warning, a sinkhole opened under a busy footpath in Dazhou City in south-west China. Four people fell in and were killed, only two bodies were retrieved. Three weeks later, CCTV footage in south-east Turkey captured an image of two women falling into a sinkhole that opened underneath them. Miraculously, they both survived without any serious injuries. Just one day later, a sinkhole appeared in the town of Zapopan in central Mexico, half-swallowing a gas truck. Around the same time, a team of Chinese-British speleologists announced the discovery of a large sinkhole in the limestone mountains of Nongle in the region of Guangxi Zhuang, southern China. It measured over 500 metres in depth, making it one of the largest sinkholes in the world. Just one month after the Dazhou City sinkhole incident, on the 7th of November 2018, 50 residents had to be evacuated from apartments at St Alban, a suburb just north of London, after a sinkhole opened up under their building.

The earth, at every corner, is regularly opening, entangling itself with socio-ecological lives.

The technical definition of a sinkhole is captured in its etymologically lazy name: they are created by the sinking of surface material that results in the creation of a hole (or a depression). Yet, sinkholes are also juxtapositional spaces. There is a linguistic slippage between ‘natural’ sinkholes that the speleologists discovered in Guangxi Zhuang and ‘cultural’ sinkholes like those that form when footpaths collapse (cf. Dixon et al 2018). Sinkholes eliminate surface land, and at the same time their voids are access points to the subterranean. They are beginnings and ends, entries and exits; they are threads in the weft of territories that form volumetric landscapes. They are thus much more than the physical process of their creation, as their common name implies.

The word ‘cenotes’, a popular alternative signifier for these spaces around the world (cf. Jaume et al. 2001; Webb et al. 2010; Marker 1976; Gomes 1985; Beck 1986), offers more epistemological complexity. Cenote is derived from the Spanish translation of the Maya word dzono’ot, which roughly translates as ‘water-filled cavities’, and it has now entered the English vocabulary. Cenotes (dzono’ot), for the Maya living in the northern Yucatan Peninsula, were the access points to an extensive underlying flooded cave system, the only source of potable water in the region (Munro and Melo 2011). Because of their fluid materiality, cenotes in the Peninsula were also access points to the Maya mythological world of Xibalba, a subterranean realm of deities, a source of life and a place of death. Materially and spiritually, cenotes are entangled with the lives of the Maya on the Peninsula. Cenotes for the Maya are not just a physical and material space, but rather entrances to a complex material, portals and passage between ontologies.

Given these complexities, sinkholes transcend the realms of urban hazards, scientific discoveries, mythological significance and spark a critical question: who owns and governs them? There is a politics of sinkholes that demands taking their volume and complexity seriously.

Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula offers a lens into some of these complexities. In the wake of a tourism boom in the region, cenotes have become a place-based commodity as sites to sell experiences: a swim in a picturesque water hole; an experience into the Mayan Xibalba; an exploration of the largest underground river systems in the world (Melo Zurita 2018). A sinkhole market has emerged in the space between those that own the land on which sinkholes exist and appear, and those who want to explore this subterranean realm (i.e. cave divers, tourists). Yet control and ownership of sinkholes is complex. Legally, according to Mexican law, all superficial bodies of water, including cenotes, belong to the nation. Pragmatically, however, whoever controls the land surrounding a cenote effectively controls access to its space. Those with technology, time and resource, like cave divers, are able to sidestep access, developing knowledge of their dimensions and contexts by moving into them through the earth.

Roberto Hashimoto and Agustin Garcia (1999) Map and Depiction of Cenote Ila, Yucatan, Mexico. 

In an environment where surface and subsurface interactions are so visually and physically accessible the connectivity seems straightforward. However, conflicts over cenote ownership have emerged where land titles do not consider the volume beneath them. Sinkholes are not simply a technical issue to be resolved in the urban environment, they also play into considerations of ‘volumetric land’. Though it is often not clear how to deal with ‘found’ subterranean resources, recent examples have made clear that human-made and ‘naturally’ formed cavities that grant access to subterranean realms fall into a legal ‘void’, pun intended.  

Unexpected sinkholes are not generally welcomed in the human realm, as is obvious from the initial paragraph vignette descriptions, but in the Yucatan Peninsula they have become desirable ‘volumetric land resources’, some ‘land’ owners have opted to dynamite the surface to accelerate the creation of sinkholes– manufacturing recreational volume for tourist consumption. The governance of such volume – exposed by the sinking ground – brings to the fore the volumetric legal variegations of land as property. Volumetric sovereignty is about the volume but also about transitional spaces—like sinkholes—that proffer access.

Such transitional spaces are accompanied by technological claims of ‘knowing’ what lies beneath, but it is also the unknowing – or the knowing in darkness – that draws humans to these spaces. We are drawn to the challenge of technologically ‘solving’ the unexpected sinkhole to stop its disturbance on human realms, but also to the knowledge of desired sinkholes, the ones that are sought out because they provide possibilities of different kinds of consumption and exploration. The politics of sinkholes make us think not about the separation of surface and subsurface but about those aspects that demonstrate their interdependency. Thinking about these transitions may give space to cosmologies that favour flows and movement, rather than separation.


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