Geotechnical Engineering

Geotechnical engineering is a discipline of civil engineering that deals with soil, rock and underground water, and their relation to design, construction and operation of engineering projects. It is also sometimes called soils engineering, ground engineering or geotechnics as it is closely related to engineering geology. The Canadian Geotechnical Society is one of the oldest and most active engineering societies in Canada. Canadian geotechnical engineers are well-known around the world.

Nearly all civil engineering structures are supported on or built into the ground, and thus require at least geotechnical engineering. Traditionally, geotechnical projects address the following issues:

Leaning Tower of Pisa, Italy

Soil conditions need to be known in advance in order to properly support structures during their entire life time

(photo provided by Dr. R. Wan)


Canada's Leaning Tower or the "Kissing Silos"

Tower silos are used to store forage crops for feeding cattle. Usually the towers are built on foundations constructed by the farmer. Over the years the towers became bigger and in some cases the pressure on the foundation exceeded the bearing capacity of the soil causing many of the structures to settle, tilt, or even collapse.

This picture shows two grain silos built on Lake Agassiz clay in the Red River valley south of Winnipeg, Manitoba. The silos were built too close together so that the 'bulbs of pressure' under the footings overlapped, as described in Dr. Mike Bozozuk's article - Tower Silo Foundations. . This caused higher stresses, and therefore larger settlements, under the parts of the ring footings that were closest together. The net result was tilting, touching, and eventually structural failure in the silos.

(photo taken by Dr. Michael Bozozuk, NRCC & provided by the University of Manitoba)


Natural disasters such as slope failures may involve movement of large quantities of soil.

On October 9, 1963, a landslide broke loose and filled the reservoir behind the Vaiont Dam in Italy. This in turn caused a huge wave of water to surge over the top the dam, flooding towns downstream. The Vaiont slide is a notorious case in geology/geotechnical engineering.


Railway Track Failure

Foundations must be designed to resist extreme loading conditions such as earthquake loading.

Installing Wick Drains

Soil improvement by installing wick drains in the soil in order to accelerate consolidation.


Techniques of excavation under different soil conditions: pipeline installation.

If the project requires retaining walls, how high can they be, and how do we design them?

Geotechnical engineers must also ask themselves, "how can we prevent the contamination of the ground with chemicals or biological agents? If the ground is contaminated, how do we assess health or safety hazards and hence propose technical measures such as soil remediation?"

Geotechnical engineering has evolved and branched off into new areas such as geoenvironmental engineering, which deals with underground environmental problems. Another area is Geomechanics. Modern geotechnical engineering use sophisticated tools such as the finite element method for computing the behaviour of geological structures. These rely heavily on principles of mechanics featuring systems of forces, displacements, stresses and strains that are used to characterize the behaviour of geomaterials (soils and rocks).

Above photos and information courtesy of Dr. R. Wan, UofC

Want to Know More?

Pictures from the Hiroshima Earthquake

Earthquake Engineering



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