Radars Might Be Used to Predict Sinkholes

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One month ago a 40 foot-wide hole in the ground opened up underneath a showroom floor at National Corvette Museum and swallowed eight cars including a black 1962 Corvette and a 1993 ZR-1 Spyder (which was recently recovered, mostly intact). The event was a tragedy for Corvette lovers, but it was also a reminder that sinkholes really can strike anywhere, at any time.

Geologists this week brought a little hope to the situation, though, revealing some promising research that could help predict where sinkholes might form. In a research paper published this month in the journal Geology radar data collected by a NASA in 2012 was shown to predict a massive sinkhole that later opened near Bayou Corne, Louisiana.

The ground in the area was shown to have been deformed one month before the sinkhole collapsed. The land around the sinkhole in a 500 square meter area was measured to have slid horizontally over 10 inches toward the eventual sinkhole in the weeks leading up to the event.

"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," said Cathleen Jones, co-author of the paper and a researcher at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory. "This kind of movement may be more common than previously thought, particularly in areas with loose soil near the surface."

The data used in the research was collected using NASA's Uninhabited Airborne Vehicle Synthetic Aperature Radar (UAVSAR). The program collects interferometric synthetic aperture radar (InSAR) data that can reveal hard-to-see deformations of the ground.

Though this technique may not be able to detect every type of sinkhole, the paper's authors believe it could be used as to monitor and predict some sinkholes, which could be particularly useful for the mining and oil industries.

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