Karst Topography: Definition & Features

Instructor: Sarah Friedl

Sarah has two Master's, one in Zoology and one in GIS, a Bachelor's in Biology, and has taught college level Physical Science and Biology.

There are many types of landscapes on Earth. One important one is called karst topography, and in this lesson we'll take a look at what it is, its common features, and its influence on freshwater resources.

Karst Landscapes

Some of the things that make Earth so interesting are its various landforms, physical geography, and geological landscapes. On our unique planet we find mountains, rivers, oceans, deserts, and many other types of environments.

One that you may not be quite as familiar with is karst topography. This is a type of landscape that forms when water dissolves and erodes soft rock (like limestone) and leaves landscapes behind such as caves, surface sinkholes, and tall, steep rock cliffs. The rock itself may be worn away from the surface by rainwater, or it may be eroded from the inside.

Karst topography in Andalusia, Spain.
karst topography

Types of Karst Topography

Karst landscapes vary considerably. For example, some karst areas have streams and rivers that will disappear into the ground, only to reappear later as springs on the surface. Some karst regions are sharp jagged hills, while others are soft rolling hills with depressions that used to be sinkholes.

These sinkholes are characteristic of karst landscapes, and are places where the surface collapses in on itself, creating a funnel-shaped hole in the ground. Caves and caverns are also common features of karst regions, as are underground streams and rivers. Karst areas also range quite a bit in scale. They may be very tiny (microscopic), or can be as large as hundreds of square miles.

Sinkholes are characteristic of karst topography.

Where Karst Topography Occurs

The name of this type of topography comes from the Karst region in Yugoslavia, but we find karst topography all over the world. In fact, ten percent of Earth's surface is covered in karst landscape! Karst regions occur throughout North America, as well as in Central and South America, Europe, Asia, Africa, and even Oceania (Australia and nearby islands).

If you live in the U.S. and want to stick close to home to visit karst topography, you're in luck! The U.S. in particular is home to a number of different karst regions in different states including the Ozarks of Missouri, the Highland Rim of central Tennessee, or the vast amount of sinkholes in north Florida.

Karst and Freshwater

Karst regions are also important features because some 25 percent of the world's population relies on water that karst areas provide. The aquifers, springs, ground, and surface waters of karst regions provide drinking water for hundreds of millions of people all over the world, making them a valuable freshwater resource.

Karst waters are also very vulnerable to contamination and pollution. This is because there is a lot of water moving through these regions and the soft rock doesn't provide a good filtration system to remove contaminants from the water.

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