What is karst? And why is it important?

Karst is a special type of landscape that is formed by the dissolution of soluble rocks, including limestone and dolomite. Karst regions contain aquifers that are capable of providing large supplies of water.

More than 25 percent of the world’s population either lives on or obtains its water from karst aquifers. In the United States, 20 percent of the land surface is karst and 40 percent of the groundwater used for drinking comes from karst aquifers.

Karst distribution in the United States (map data compiled from Weary and Doctor, 2014, and the USGS Groundwater Atlas of the United States)

Natural features of the landscape such as caves and springs are typical of karst regions. Karst landscapes are often spectacularly scenic areas. Examples include the sinkhole plains and caves of central Kentucky, the large crystal-clear springs of Florida, and the complex, beautifully decorated caves of New Mexico.

Common geological characteristics of karst regions that influence human use of its land and water resources include ground subsidence, sinkhole collapse, groundwater contamination, and unpredictable water supply.