Shelby: Sinkholes that open up in the ground are dangerous and even deadly. And until now, they have been very unpredictable. But NASA scientists may have figured out a way to predict where these sinkholes form and spread. Scott Evans has the details.
Scott: Like something out of a science fiction movie, sinkholes literally swallow up the ground and everything above it. This video from 2012 shows a whole line of trees in Louisiana getting sucked up. About 300 residents were forced to abandon their homes for good. Now NASA is using this plane to try to predict where sinkholes might form and spread. Using unique radar technology that transmits electronic pulses, scientists can map out how the Earth’s crust is shifting.
John McGrath: We’re basically a flying laboratory.
Scott: NASA’s John McGrath is in charge of the plane and says the tech onboard is extremely accurate, down to some of the smallest measurements.
McGrath: Centimeters. On a centimeter level.
Scott: NASA’s airplane laboratory flew 41,000 feet above the Louisiana coast, some of which has been slowly sinking into the Gulf of Mexico.
One of the most challenging parts of a trip like this is the actual flight pattern. Now, they call it the tube, which basically means the plane has to be flown on the exact same path as previous trips to ensure the most accurate data collection. Now once on that path, they will shoot radar toward the ground to get an image of a sinkhole in the area.
Sinkholes typically occur when underlying rock is dissolved by water. Once eroded, the surface collapses. About 20% of the country is at risk. States most at risk are Texas, Missouri, Kentucky, Tennessee, Pennsylvania, and the number one state Florida where, back in August, this Florida vacation villa near Disney World was destroyed. And outside Tampa last March, a man was swallowed inside his home while he was sleeping.
Roger Chao: Well, we just fly over the sinkhole.
Scott: It doesn’t take long to reach the site where the trees were devoured by the sinkhole. At this altitude, it can’t be seen by the eye, but the radar can’t miss it.
Chao: We are taking the very precise measurement of the surface. And by comparing the surface before and after, we can determine how much ground shift has happened.
Scott: By studying these radar images, NASA scientists discovered the Louisiana sinkhole had shifted as much as 10 inches at least a month before the ground caved in. It is a finding that could, in the future, help track how sinkholes develop nationwide and possibly prevent being taken by surprise.
Scott Evans, Channel One News.