NASA may be able to predict sinkholes

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Cheryl Santa Maria
Digital Reporter

Thursday, March 6, 2014, 6:27 PM -

Sinkholes typically form without warning and are notoriously hard to predict, but new research from NASA may change that.

Analysis of radar data from 2012 was able to pick up early indications of a massive sinkhole near Bayou Corne, Louisiana before it collapsed, according to the space agency.

Cathleen Jones and Ron Blom of NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory discovered deformations on the Earth's surface starting at least a month before the sinkhole formed.

RELATED: Sinkhole swallows backhoe in Montreal

"While horizontal surface deformations had not previously been considered a signature of sinkholes, the new study shows they can precede sinkhole formation well in advance," Jones said in a statement.

"This kind of movement may be more common than previously thought, particularly in areas with loose soil near the surface."

The study may also be able to predict which direction sinkholes are likely to expand. Scientists believe that routinely-collected radar data may be able to predict at least some sinkholes before they occur.

"Every year, unexpected ground motions from sinkholes, landslides and levee failures cost millions of dollars and many lives," Jones said. 

"When there is small movement prior to a catastrophic collapse, such subtle precursory clues can be detected."

A sinkhole is a depression or hole in the ground that occurs when the Earth's surface collapses into an underground cavern. They are common where underground rock is limestone, carbonate rock, salt beds, or any other type of rock that can be dissolved by groundwater, leading to the development of a cavern.

In February, a massive sinkhole made headlines when it swallowed eight corvettes at a national museum in Kentucky.

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