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CSUF Geologist Investigates 'Sinkholes: Swallowed Alive'

National Geographic Channel Show With Matthew Kirby to Air Jan. 27

Jan. 21, 2014

For the National Geographic Channel special, "Sinkholes: Swallowed Alive," CSUF's Matthew Kirby, associate professor of geological sciences, talks with William Osmanski, a police officer in Plant City, Fla., who shares the details of finding a woman who fell into this sinkhole, and how he pulled her to safety. Photo by NGT

Imagine the ground suddenly collapsing, swallowing up a whole city block, a house or building, or the road giving way and the car and driver plummeting deep into the earth below.

Sinkholes, or cave-ins of the ground, can cause massive devastation to property, and also catastrophe and death.

To educate people about the science behind sinkholes, Cal State Fullerton geologist Matthew Kirby is lead investigator of the National Geographic Channel special, "Sinkholes: Swallowed Alive," scheduled to air at 7 p.m. Jan. 27.

The one-hour special takes viewers to west central Florida where sinkholes are particularly common and highlights stories of people who have survived sinkholes, as well as the anguish of losing a family member — buried alive.

Stepping beyond the classroom to reach a national audience was the chance of a lifetime, said Kirby, associate professor of geological sciences.

"The opportunity came up, and it was something I couldn't pass up," said Kirby. "I looked at it as 'Why not?' It's what I do; it's just me being a teacher on TV. I'm proud of the fact that I had the willingness to say, 'What the heck, I'll give it a try.' "

Kirby filmed the show following the end of the spring 2013 semester. He traveled to the Tampa Bay area to interview survivors and others who experienced sinkhole damage to their homes and property. At studios in the Los Angels area, he helped to create sinkhole demonstrations and special effects to "simplify the science" to help viewers better understand how and why sinkholes happen. He even performed his own "stunt" to simulate what it would be like to suddenly fall into a sinkhole.

While being in front of the camera was a fun and exciting experience, spending up to 14 hours a day filming and interviewing was exhausting and harder work than he expected.

"The people I interviewed had compelling stories to tell; I interviewed a man whose brother died in a sinkhole, a woman who fell into a sinkhole twice. One interview lasted two hours without a break," he said. "It was emotionally draining."

Sinkholes happen when limestone and other rock dissolve, leaving voids beneath the ground, and that's when the overlying surface is especially prone to collapse without warning, Kirby explained.

"Sinkholes are one of those natural disasters that are terrifying. For the show, we hope to educate, as well as entertain."

Kirby, who has been a member of the faculty at Cal State Fullerton since 2002, teaches an upper-level geology course that includes the processes that form sinkholes, such as the impact of groundwater on bedrock dissolution. His research interests focus on incorporating historical records of climate change as a calibration tool for assessing past climate states. Kirby is currently using sediments from coastal Thailand and Southern California to reconstruct past tsunami activity and past climates in those regions.

While he is thrilled to share his expertise on a national cable television special, and his friends and colleagues plan on hosting a Hollywood-type, red-carpet screening in his honor, Kirby won't be trading his day job for the limelight anytime soon.

"I love my job; I would never give up teaching and research," said Kirby, even though one of his students has already asked him for his autograph.

Media Contacts:
Matthew Kirby, Geological Sciences, 657-278-2158
Debra Cano Ramos, 657-278-4027 

Tags:  Academics & Research