Under the top soil is a layer called the overburden. Under that is bedrock, which may seem tough and solid, but it's actually filled with cracks and crevices water is constantly seeping through and infiltrating. As the water erodes the bedrock, the overburden starts to fall down into the space left behind. Years later, all that's left is a thin layer and the potential for a sinkhole to open up.
However, if there's a slab over the surface you may not know there's a problem until it's too late. That's why Matt Dettman developed MSEDS, short for Mechanical Sinkhole Early Detection System. Dettman is a WKU Associate Professor of Civil Engineering and specializes in geotechnical engineering.
"MSEDS is designed to function underneath a structure and relys on gravity. If there's air underneath a slab we can detect it," Dettman said.
Dettman recently received a provisional patent from the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office.
"We now have a year to develop and work towards a finished product so homeowners, business owners or anyone else can purchase MSEDS," he said.
MSEDS will cost approximately $1,000, according to Dettman.
"If this is installed in a slab and there's air under the foundation, the weight at the bottom would fall and trigger the device to give you a warning at the surface of the slab," Dettman said. The 'warning' Dettman referred to is a red rod protruding from the MSEDS device.
The device would've alerted personnel at the National Corvette Museum in Bowling Green where eight prized corvettes sunk into a 40-foot-wide, 60-foot-deep sinkhole.
"If there were people in that room, it certainly could've been a tragedy. However, they would've had a warning weeks ahead of time if MSEDS was installed in the floor," Dettman said.
MSEDS is not available for purchase, yet.
"It should be on the market by 2015. We'll design and produce it right here at WKU," Dettman said.
One or two MSEDS would be installed "We'd probably put it at the corners of the house, potentially in the garage slab where we could get it installed and put it at depth to try to detect any sort of sinkhole activity beneath that structure.
Right now homeowners can opt for sinkhole insurance - exactly what the National Corvette Museum invested in decades ago.
"What we recommend for homeowners is to pay close attention to their downspouts of their house. You need to get water away from the structure. Water is the enemy," Dettman said.
For more information on sinkholes and karst terrain in Kentucky, click here to be connected to the Kentucky Geological Society. And download sinkhole data by county, here.