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New Orleans is sinking; new map reveals where and how fast

By Brooks Hays
New Orleans is sinking; new map reveals where and how fast
A new NASA map plots subsidence rates in and around the city of New Orleans. The map's red stars pinpoint places where levees were breached during Hurricane Katrina in 2005. Photo by NASA/JPL-Caltech/Esri

NEW ORLEANS, May 17 (UPI) -- A new NASA study offers the most detailed look at sinking rates in and around New Orleans.

The study and map of variable sinking rates relied on NASA airborne radar data collected between June 2009 and July 2012. The data was processed by scientists at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, UCLA and Louisiana State University, Baton Rouge.

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New Orleans is sinking as a result of both human activities and natural geologic phenomena. By plotting the city's varying rates of sinking, known as subsidence, researchers can identify patterns, consider causes and identify potential problems.

Though some of the subsidence measured in New Orleans is the result of natural fluctuations in the Mississippi River's water levels, much of the sinking is caused by groundwater pumping and dewatering -- efforts undertaken to lower the water table and prevent soggy land.

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The results of the new data analysis -- detailed in the Journal of Geophysical Research: Solid Earth -- revealed subsidence rates mostly in line with previous studies and different data sets. Though the latest findings did identify a few areas of accelerated sinking -- near the industrial areas of Norco and Michoud, in the city's Upper and Lower 9th Ward and in Metairie.

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Researchers say the latest study will inform land use planning and policy decisions.

"Agencies can use these data to more effectively implement actions to remediate and reverse the effects of subsidence, improving the long-term coastal resiliency and sustainability of New Orleans," Cathleen Jones, JPL scientist and lead author of the new study, said in a news release. "The more recent land elevation change rates from this study will be used to inform flood modeling and response strategies, improving public safety."

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