Karst Topography Essay

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Karst topography results from the dissolution of subsurface carbonate rock (calcite and dolomite) through the percolation of slightly acidic moisture in the form of carbonic acid, which is formed from rainwater picking up carbon dioxide in both the atmosphere and the soil. Once within the carbonate rock layers, the acidic liquid begins to dissolve the rock, leading to landscapes with numerous cave features. A common outcome is also the development of sinkholes, where the dissolved subsurface rock layer can no longer support soil and rock above it and collapses. Karst landscapes can develop from fluvial formations (surface water) and underground drainage. The term Karst is rooted in the German place name, Kras, designating a region in Slovenia extending into Italy, where the first research on Karst topography was conducted.

Sinkholes can appear suddenly and with no warning, resulting in the loss of farm machinery, buildings, and cattle. In 1981, a sinkhole in Winter Park, Florida, opened up to a diameter of nearly 1,000 feet, swallowing several cars, a home, and half of a swimming pool. It is estimated that more than 25 percent of the world’s population lives in an area of Karst landscape or relies on areas of this composition for its water supply. Because Karst regions are particularly susceptible to water pollution, sources of drinking water can be at risk. The flooding of caves in the Bowling Green, Kentucky, area in the mid-1980s caused industrial waste to enter wells in the region.

The conterminous United States, with 20 percent of its land surface on Karst topography and nearly 40 percent of groundwater deriving from Karst underground sources, is particularly vulnerable to water pollution. The presence of landfills, cattle gazing areas, and septic tanks on Karst landscapes provide additional hazards to water supplies when disruptions occur. Agriculture within Karst regions can also be problematic. Normally fertile soils can become leached of nutrients when rapid drainage occurs, preceding periods of drought. Millions of dollars are spent in the United States alone to repair fields and roads disrupted by Karst dissolutions and resulting sinkhole formation.

Karst regions are found throughout the world. A considerable number of Karst landscapes are found in Asia (China, Laos, Malaysia, Thailand, and Vietnam), a number of countries in Europe, the island of Madagascar, and throughout North America and Central America. Kentucky and Florida lead all states in the number of Karst regions. Karst topography can also become a tourist attraction. The famous Carlsbad Caverns in New Mexico is a case in point. Thousands of tourists visit the expansive caverns annually to view its dramatic stalactite and stalagmite formations.


  1. Robert W. Christopherson, Geosystems: An Introduction to Physical Geography (Prentice Hall, 1997);
  2. Alan H. Strahler and Arthur N. Strahler, Introducing Physical Geography (John Wiley & Sons, 2003);
  3. Edward J. Tarbuck and Frederick K. Lutgens, Earth, An Introduction to Physical Geology (Prentice Hall, 2002);
  4. William B. White, Geomorphology and Hydrology of Karst Terrains (Oxford University Press, 1988).

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