Can NASA predict where sinkholes might form and spread?

(CBS News)

Unpredictable and scary, sinkholes swallow up the ground and everything above it, but NASA scientists believe they've discovered a way to predict where the holes might form and spread. Using a NASA plane with unique radar technology that transmits electronic pulses, scientists can map out how the earth's crust is shifting, reports CBS news correspondent Vicente Arenas on "CBS This Morning."

"We're basically a flying laboratory," said NASA's John McGrath who is in charge of the plane.

This comes as

news of a sinkhole in a retirement community in The Villages, Fla., re-opened Wednesday

after being plugged over the weekend.

Arenas flew on NASA's plane, 41,000 feet above the Louisiana coast -- some of which has been slowly sinking into the Gulf of Mexico.

In an incredibly challenging maneuver, the crew flies through what they call "the tube." They fly on the exact same path as previous trips in order to make sure they get accurate data while the crew shoots a radar at the ground to get an image of the sinkhole.

"We are taking a very precise measurement of the surface, and by comparing the surface before and after, we can determine how much ground shift has happened," said Roger Chao, a NASA engineer aboard the plane.

McGrath said the radar is accurate down to the centimeter.

Sinkholes typically occur when underlying rock is dissolved by water. Once eroded, the surface collapses.

About 20 percent of the country is susceptible. States most at risk are Texas, Missouri, Kentucky, Tennessee, Pennsylvania and Florida, with Florida having the highest risk. In March a man outside Tampa was swallowed inside his home while he was sleeping, and in August a Florida vacation villa near Disney World was destroyed.

In 2012 a whole line of trees in Assumption Parish, La., was sucked up in a sinkhole, and about 300 residents were forced to abandon their homes for good. By studying the radar images of the area recently, NASA scientists discovered that the sinkhole had shifted as much as 10 inches at least a month before the ground caved in. It's a finding that could in the future help track how sinkholes develop nationwide and possibly prevent people from being taken by surprise.

NASA hopes to implement its research nationwide, especially in Florida.

GALLERY: Sinkholes in Florida


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