Liquefaction of Soil

Liquefaction is the phenomena when there is loss of strength in saturated and cohesion-less soils because of increased pore water pressures and hence reduced effective stresses due to dynamic loading. It is a phenomenon in which the strength and stiffness of a soil is reduced by earthquake shaking or other rapid loading.

The presence of silt and clay particles has long been thought to affect the behavior of a sand under cyclic loading. Unfortunately, a review of studies published in the literature reveals that no clear conclusions can be drawn as to how altering fines content and plasticity actually affects the liquefaction resistance of a sand. In fact, the literature contains what appears to be contradictory evidence. There is a need to clarify the effects of fines content and plasticity on the liquefaction resistance of sandy soils, and to determine methods for accounting for these effects in engineering practice.

Liquefaction occurs in saturated soils and saturated soils are the soils in which the space between individual particles is completely filled with water. This water exerts a pressure on the soil particles that. The water pressure is however relatively low before the occurrence of earthquake. But earthquake shaking can cause the water pressure to increase to the point at which the soil particles can readily move with respect to one another. Although earthquakes often triggers this increase in water pressure, but activities such as blasting can also cause an increase in water pressure. When liquefaction occurs, the strength of the soil and the ability of a soil deposit to support the construction above it decreases.

Soil liquefaction can also exert higher pressure on retaining walls, which can cause them to slide or tilt. This movement can cause destruction of structures on the ground surface and settlement of the retained soil. It is required to recognize the conditions that exist in a soil deposit before an earthquake in order to identify liquefaction. Soil is basically an assemblage of many soil particles which stay in contact with many neighboring soil. The contact forces produced by the weight of the overlying particles holds individual soil particle in its place and provide strength.

Soil grains in a soil deposit. The height of the blue column to the right represents the level of pore-water pressure in the soil. The length of the arrows represents the size of the contact forces between individual soil grains. The contact forces are large when the pore-water pressure is low.

Occurrence of liquefaction is the result of rapid load application and break down of the loose and saturated sand and the loosely-packed individual soil particles tries to move into a denser configuration. However, there is not enough time for the pore-water of the soil to be squeezed out in case of earthquake. Instead, the water is trapped and prevents the soil particles from moving closer together. Thus, there is an increase in water pressure which reduces the contact forces between the individual soil particles causing softening and weakening of soil deposit. In extreme conditions, the soil particles may lose contact with each other due to the increased pore-water pressure. In such cases, the soil will have very little strength, and will behave more like a liquid than a solid - hence, the name "liquefaction".