Since 2012, a monstrous sinkhole in Bayou Corne Louisiana has been swallowing up land in giant, tree-sized gulps, growing to a whopping 25-acres. Now, analyses of NASA radar data indicate the land showed signs of collapsing before the sinkhole opened. This raises a pressing question: Could sinkholes like Bayou Corne's be predicted before they happen?
Above: The now 25-acre sinkhole, as seen from above. Image credit: On Wings of Care, New Orleans, La.
Theoretically? Yes. In practice, though, probably not. "You could spend a lot of time flying and processing data without capturing a sinkhole," said JPL researcher Ron Blom. Blom, along with researcher Cathleen Jones, analyzed radar data of Southern Louisiana collected by NASA's Uninhabited Airborne Vehicle Synthetic Aperture Radar (UAVSAR) and found that the ground surface layer in Bayou Corne had, according to NASA, "deformed significantly at least a month before the collapse, moving mostly horizontally up to 10.2 inches (260 millimeters) toward where the sinkhole would later form."
This interferogram was formed with images acquired on June 23, 2011 and July 2, 2012. Colors represent surface movement, with one full color wrap corresponding to 4.7 inches (120 millimeters) of displacement. Image & Caption Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech
"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," added Jones. "This kind of movement may be more common than previously thought, particularly in areas with loose soil near the surface."
Even if there are no immediate plans to fly NASA's UAVSAR over sinkhole-prone areas, it's encouraging to know that predicting sinkholes is something we could conceivably do moving forward. Though we suspect that's small comfort to the people that make up the community of Bayou Corne, many of whom were evacuated so as to keep them from being swallowed up by the sinkhole. The sinkhole, which continues to threaten the community, along with nearby Highway 70, is still growing – perhaps UAVSAR could at least be used to provide locals with some sense of where, and how quickly, it will continue to expand.