Lesson 17 Failure and Damages I

17.1   Nature and Importance

In recent years, dam safety draws increasing attention from the public. This is because floods resulting from dam or levee failures can lead to devastating disasters with tremendous loss of life and property, especially in densely populated areas. Obviously, analysis of dam failures is of critical importance for disasters prevention and mitigation. Hence, a robust understanding of the characteristics of dam failures (e.g., failure mode, cause, and key influence factors) is needed.

With respect to earth dams, the term “failure” is defined herein as an occurrence of excessive erosion or deformation of the embankment that may result in an uncontrolled release of reservoir water or damage to appurtenant structures.  To assess the safety of a dam and the possibility of failure, the different potential failure mechanisms must be recognized.  Failure mechanisms are grouped into four general categories (Fig. 17.1) slope stability, piping, overtopping, and foundation failures. By understanding these failure mechanisms, a geotechnical program of investigation, analysis, instrumentation, and monitoring can be developed to assess the safety of the dam with respect to each failure mechanism. Many dams and other earth-fill dams fail because of poor planning, investigation, design, construction practices, and maintenance.

17.2   Slope Stability Failures

Two forces act upon the soil mass within an embankment.  The driving force, due to the weight of the soil, tends to move the soil mass down slope.  The resisting force, due to the strength of the soil along the base of the soil mass, or “slip surface,” tends to hold the soil mass in place.  If the driving force is greater than the resisting force, the soil mass will slide along the slip surface and a slope stability failure will occur.  The potential for failure for a given soil mass is quantified in terms of the Factor of Safety, which is defined as the resisting force divided by the driving force.  If the Factor of Safety is greater than 1.0, the soil mass will not slide.

Fig. 17.1

Fig. 17.1. Failure mechanisms for earth dams.

(Source: http://www.eng.kufauniv.com)

Factors of Safety are typically calculated assuming that the soil mass is crescent-shaped and the slip surface is a circular arc.  This type of failure surface is generally consistent with observations of historically observed slope stability failures and facilitates the use of computer programs in the analysis, although soil masses with non-circular slip surfaces may also be evaluated.  By using a computer to calculate Factors of Safety for a number of different soil masses and slip surfaces, the lowest overall Factor of Safety can be automatically derived.

For earth dams, there are three types of slope stability failures:  steady-state, seismic, and rapid-drawdown.  For the steady-state case, failure occurs on the downstream side of the dam under conditions of steady-state seepage.  This type of failure may occur as a result of an increase in pore water pressure in the dam.  For the rapid-drawdown case, failure occurs on the upstream side of the embankment as a result of a sudden lowering of the reservoir level. 

For the seismic case, the driving force on the soil mass increases due to horizontal earthquake force, while the resisting force may be reduced if portions of the embankment or foundation liquefy. Liquefaction can occur during an earthquake in loose, saturated, and sandy soils.  During liquefaction, the soil particles are rearranged into a denser configuration, which tends to displace pore water.  Since the pore water cannot vacate the pore spaces immediately, the pore water pressure temporarily increases.  If this increase is sufficient, the soil particles become supported by the pore water, which has no shear strength.  As a result, the shear strength of the soil approaches zero.  When performing a seismic slope stability analysis, it may be found that at times during the earthquake when ground shaking is at a maximum, the Factor of Safety falls below 1.0 and some deformation occurs.  A limited amount of deformation (e.g. less than 2 or 3 m, depending on the height of the embankment) may be considered acceptable provided that there is no associated release of reservoir water.

17.3   Piping Failures

Properly designed earth dams are intended not to eliminate seepage completely, but to control seepage so that excessive water pressures within the embankment do not cause a steady-state slope stability failure.  To control seepage, dams are often constructed with a core of fine-grained soil (to minimize seepage) flanked by zones of coarser-grained soil (to control seepage that does occur and prevent water pressure buildup).  However, if measures are not taken to prevent the fine-grained soil particles from dislodging and seeping into the pore spaces of the coarse-grained soil, cavities can develop inside the dam.  Cracks can also develop within the dam due to differential settlement within the embankment, especially if the depth to bedrock is highly variable.  The cavities and cracks can act as preferential conduits for water to flow freely through the dam and erode the dam from the inside out.  This phenomenon, referred to as “piping,” can cause a dam to fail suddenly and catastrophically.  Cracks and fissures, high-permeability strata, and Karst features in the foundation and abutments may also act as preferential conduits and contribute to piping.

17.4 Overtopping Failures

Dams are designed with principal and emergency spillways to control the maximum reservoir elevation and prevent the reservoir from flowing over the top of the dam, or “overtopping.”  Overtopping may occur when the spillways are not adequately designed, or if they become obstructed and cease to function.

Overtopping can cause large amounts of erosion on the down slope side of the dam, which may compromise the stability of the dam.

17.5 Foundation Failures

When a new dam is constructed, the underlying foundation materials must bear a significant load due to the weight of the dam and reservoir.  If the foundation consists of weak materials, such as soft clay, a foundation stability failure can occur, leading to significant deformation of the embankment.  Failures may also occur under steady-state conditions in existing dams if a weak or permeable seam exists in the foundation.  If seepage occurs along a seam, the elevated pore pressure and increased water content of the seam material may cause a reduction in strength along the seam.  Piping within the seam may also be a contributing factor.  Karts features may affect foundation capacity by allowing preferential flow, causing stress concentrations in the foundation rock, and presenting opportunities for limestone dissolution.  Finally, liquefaction of granular soils during an earthquake may reduce the stability of the foundation.

Keywords: Failure, Seepage, Foundation, Stability


Suggested Readings

  • Suresh, R. 2002. Soil and Water Conservation Engineering. Standard Publishers.

  • http://des.nh.gov/organization/commissioner/pip/factsheets/db/documents/db-4.pdf

  • http://aitech.ac.jp/~narita/tembankmentdam1.pdf

Last modified: Tuesday, 4 February 2014, 5:03 AM