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Drone investigates massive fissure in the Arizona desert

A massive fissure has formed in the Arizona desert – but not recently. Scientists think it may be several years old. Now, they’re investigating it with drone technology.

The fissure, about two miles long and quite wide in some spots, formed sometime between March 2013 and December 2014, which is when it first appeared on Google Earth, the Arizona Geological Survey said. It’s located in southern Pinal County.

The scientific organization used a drone to investigate the huge crack in the ground, which is too deep for people standing on the edge to see the bottom, scientists said.

The AZGS released video footage taken by the drone on YouTube. One video shows the crack in the Earth from above, while a second film by the drone starts from inside the fissure and flies high into the air to show how deep and long it is.

Researchers standing at the edge of the massive fissure to operate the drone give some perspective on its size.

The footage is the first time the geologists have used a drone to investigate such a feature. AZGS is testing drone technology with plans to safely map fissures like this one, landslides, and other geological features in the future.

Heavy rains in 2014 probably caused this particular crack to grow and widen, geologists said. The southern end may have been an underground void until a monsoon in 2016 knocked the lid off, the researchers said.

The fissure in the Tator Hills area isn’t unique. Similar fissures have formed out in the Arizona desert before, probably due to shrinking groundwater, AZGS scientists said.

It’s not even the first in Pinal County. In August 2005, a massive fissure opened up in Queen Creek after a monsoon. Public worries over the Queen Creek fissure led to legislation tasking the AZGS with mapping cracks in the desert.

Earth fissures have been seen in Cochise, Pima, Pinal and Maricopa counties. In addition to drones, the AZGS uses GPS receivers to measure new fissures.

By Kyla Cathey / staff writer

Image credit: U.S. government

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