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Minnesota Teen Drives Straight Into Gaping Chasm In The Ground, Survives

Sixteen-year-old drivers get in a fair number of car crashes.

But most of them don't look like this.

A young man in southwestern Minnesota found himself in a pickle when he drove straight into a gaping chasm in the road before him. As seen in video published by the local sheriff's office, the accident left the car sticking into the air, nearly vertical.

"This 16-year-old driver was very lucky to have escaped without any injuries thanks in part to his seat [belt] and air bags," the Renville County Sheriff's Office said on Facebook.

The sheriff's office posted the video on Facebook, where it has been shared thousands of times.

The driver's grandmother, Candace Leopold, told the local CBS affiliate that the teenager has been driving for only a few weeks and was on his way to work at a farm when he had the sudden encounter with the ground.

He escaped by crawling out the back window of his car, Leopold says.

The sheriff's office says the chasm in the earth was created by flooding after the road washed out around an underground culvert.

Some news outlets have described the resulting void as a sinkhole, but the U.S. Geological Survey tells NPR that is not precisely accurate.

"Sinkholes are common where the rock below the land surface is limestone, carbonate rock, salt beds, or rocks that can naturally be dissolved by groundwater circulating through them — also collectively known as 'karst,' " Daniel Doctor, a research geologist, explained in an email.

Basically, as the water eats away at the rock, it creates underground caverns that can collapse — and boom, you've got a sinkhole.

But that's not what happened in Renville County. Instead, Doctor says, the erosion around a culvert is an example of something geologists usually refer to as a "piping feature," or erosion that happens beneath the ground.

Whatever you call it, the sudden appearance of a brand-new ravine in the middle of the road is a perilous proposition.

And we here at NPR are wholeheartedly dedicated to the cause of sinkhole awareness. Even when the sinkhole is actually a "piping feature."

Be alert: You never know when the ground will open up beneath you.

As we have reported, "researchers say that minor sinkholes occur all the time around the world without much notice." Some areas are more prone than others, but precise sinkhole locations can't be predicted. And, like we saw in Minnesota, the ground can collapse because of man-made causes even in regions that aren't at a high risk for natural sinkholes.

Most sinkholes develop slowly, geologist Anthony Randazzo told NPR in 2013. Cracks and tilting will be visible as the ground sinks. But with catastrophic sinkholes, which are triggered by some kind of sudden collapse, "you are given very little warning," he says. "It can take place over the course of minutes or hours or a few days."

Cautionary tales abound.

There was the distracted scooter driver in Beihai, China ...

... the sinkhole that opened up beneath the National Corvette Museum, devouring eight iconic sports cars ...

... the Dublin sinkhole with a possibly sordid history ...

... the absolute nightmare of the sinkhole that killed a sleeping man by opening beneath his bedroom and swallowing him whole, and then reopened once again years later ...

... the giant sinkhole that polluted Florida's drinking water supply ...

... the ever-expanding sinkholes beneath the Texas towns of Wink and Kermit ...

... the sinkhole that swallowed a car in Toledo in 2013 (the driver was rescued) ...

... and the mind-boggling mega-sinkhole triggered by a tropical storm in Guatemala City in 2010.

As the Renville County Sheriff's Office put it, "always BUCKLE UP; you just never know what situation you might encounter!"

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Camila Flamiano Domonoske covers cars, energy and the future of mobility for NPR's Business Desk.
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