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Sinking Drillfield rumors exposed

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Posted: Monday, February 11, 2013 12:00 am

Walking across campus on a blustery February morning is a bad start to any day, but is the Drillfield actually a downer?

Central to Virginia Tech’s campus, the Drillfield visibly lowers in elevation as one walks from War Memorial Hall at its southern end to Burruss Hall, at its northern end. Rumors have long circulated that the open space of grass is sinking, claiming the bowl-like depression as proof.

Students explained the Drillfield depression in different ways. One student said she heard it was sinking because of the number of pushups done by the Corp of Cadets, while others said that they heard about the mysterious sink during orientation.

“I heard it sinks around an inch a year,” said senior computer science major Derek Ong. “I think I even heard that in a freshman tour.”

Although the Drillfield is clearly lower in elevation than the surrounding land, Tess Thompson, an associate professor of biological systems engineering, put down the rapid sinking rumors.

“If it were sinking an inch a year, there'd be repercussions for all of the infrastructure on the Drillfield: the light poles, the sidewalks, etc.” said Thompson. “You'd see it.”

Some claim that a stream runs beneath the Drillfield and is the source of the sink. Thompson explained they’re partially correct; a waterway, Stroubles Creek, does runs underneath the Drillfield and downtown Blacksburg.

A tributary of the New River, the headwaters of Stroubles Creek originate in the northwestern part of Blacksburg and flow to the southwest. The Creek is formed of two streams, the Web Branch and the Central Branch. The former flows under the Derring Lot and opens up at the intersection of West Campus Drive and Duck Pond Drive.

The Central Branch of Stroubles Creek now runs underneath the southern side of the Drillfield, somewhat parallel to War Memorial Hall. In 1934, the waterway was enclosed in a three-sided culvert, measuring eight feet high and four and a half feet wide. Now, all that remains of the Central Branch is a line of manholes on the Drillfield and an opening beneath a bridge leading to the Duck Pond.

The bottomless “pipe” retains the natural streambead, said Thompson, who is a researcher for the Center for Watershed Studies.

“It allows interaction between the stream and groundwater and also allows bed sediment to move,” Thompson said.

The presence of Stroubles beneath the Drillfield has fostered claims that the waterway is responsible for the Drillfield’s sinking. However, W. Cully Hession, professor of biological systems engineering, said that if this were true, the dip would look distinctly different.

“Where the stream is buried — because it's got a concrete structure around it — would probably end up being higher than the rest of the Drillfield (if it were sinking), but it's not,” said Hession.

Because Stroubles only runs on one side of the Drillfield, it could only cause that one side to lower rather than cause a large valley like what is present.

While Thompson does not believe that the underground waterway could cause any sinks, she said that small depressions could potentially result from soil compaction. As people run, walk and bike across the Drillfield, it presses the soil in tighter, making it harder for rainfall to infiltrate the ground and for grass to take root.

“If you compact soil, it does lower,” Thompson said. “The Drillfield would be a lot nicer if people stayed on the path.”

However, while any changes from long-term soil compression are detrimental to the soil and to tree roots, they are ultimately minute in terms of sinking. To understand a more plausible reason for potential depressions, one has to go deeper.

Blacksburg lies on karst topography, meaning, among other things, that the terrain is characterized by layers of carbonate rock such as limestone. Limestone-rich regions often host caves and sinkholes.

“You can have the soil sink because there's limestone,” Thompson said. “Is there one completely under the Drillfield? Nobody knows, but that's another reason why soil can sink.”

Ultimately, the two professors expressed doubt at the rumor that the Drillfield is sinking and said that it is a natural valley.

Some students say that, whatever the cause, the natural contours of the Drilflield have changed over the past century and cite photographs as evidence.

“You can look at picture of it 50 years ago and it’s totally level," said Daniel Diggs, a junior majoring in engineering, science and mechanics. “There are no hills like you see now.”

Originally, when President John McBryde offered the field for use by both the military and athletic departments in 1894, the area was plowed, harrowed, and rolled, leaving the earth stony. It was not until 1909 that the field — then known as “Miles Field” — was top dressed, adding three to nine inches of soil and leveling it substantially.

Whether the Drillfield is indiscernibly sinking or not, the fact remains that it is an integral part of university life. Students like Bryce Renick, a junior mechanical engineering major, say that a slight sink might actually be a good thing.

“I can cross the Drillfield a lot quicker,” Renick said. “Ultimately, it’s a much quicker route because of the hill... it shoots me across.”

Follow this writer on Twitter @CodyOwens5

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