Sinkholes, bridge collapses, and other disasters: Using EarthWorks to predict the failure of aged infrastructure that could lead to mass loss of life and property, and environmental destruction

May 18, 2023
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One only needs to unlock their phone to see an image of a train derailment, a sinkhole that swallowed a car, a dam that failed, or a bridge that collapsed. These incidences are increasingly common, and they are often related to aged infrastructure. It is the subject of much discussion, something illustrated in this Wall Street Journal video report.

Among the many existing challenges for geotechnical infrastructure, the difficulties associated with the age of existing infrastructure just may play the most important role. In some regions, infrastructure such as dams, levees, roads, and mines may be over a hundred years old. With infrastructure that old, construction materials and standards at the time the asset was built were drastically different than they are for new assets. For example, for old railway assets, soil, rock cuttings, and embankments are often too steep and were constructed to outdated standards without the present knowledge of soil and rock mechanics. This leads to a much lower perception of risk. These aged assets may lead to failure due to asset deterioration over time. These complexities must be factored into any infrastructure maintenance program. Intelligence about the infrastructure is extremely useful information for operators.

While there are complexities related to mitigating damage from infrastructure failures, early identification of likely failure points is something which can now be swiftly accomplished. Since changing out aged infrastructure is costly and time-consuming even with government funding, utilities, rail managers, and other organizations are turning to ASTERRA EarthWorks for monitoring as a part of their maintenance program. EarthWorks monitors soil moisture underground for ground infrastructure installations, such as dams and levees, roads, railways, mining operations, and large, developed properties. EarthWorks monitors the actual moisture gathering below and around at-risk infrastructure to anticipate and mitigate potential failures before they occur.

EarthWorks is a solution derived via an orbiting satellite and a highly sensitive radar band that reflects off underground moisture. The signal is analyzed through ASTERRA’s patented algorithms and artificial intelligence where it is visualized as soil moisture contours. EarthWorks can assess underground soil moisture conditions across vast tracts of land of up to 800,000 acres (3,200 sq km) simultaneously.

The use of PolSAR analytics is instrumental in the development of large-scale spatial monitoring along infrastructure areas of interest. PolSAR is satellite-based and sees through clouds and rain, day and night, it can penetrate tree cover, snow, ice, concrete, pavement, and works in rural or urban areas. It then maps soil moisture content that can translate into drainage problems or geotechnical instabilities near critical infrastructure. The radar is providing asset managers with the benefits of seeing incremental movements along geotechnical assets as they occur and potentially triggering alarms depending upon the monitoring set up. This deformation monitoring method is well understood for known problem areas and can assist engineers in decision making.

The proper monitoring and maintenance of dams and levees, for example, is critical to protect human life, property, and the environment. Courts will hold organizations responsible for failure to maintain, as they have after the loss of life and destruction caused even by natural disasters such as a hurricane. In 2017, when Hurricane Harvey caused severe flooding in Houston, Texas, the flooding led to the failure of several aging dams in the area, forcing thousands of people to evacuate their homes.

Safety from a natural disaster is not the only thing protected by EarthWorks. According to, there are 92,000 dams in the U.S. alone which are storing either water or toxic waste, with an average age of 61 years. Many require enhanced monitoring. With a view from a satellite, ASTERRA monitors entire systems, minimizing environmental issues if there is failure.

One industry with extensive adoption of multiple ASTERRA solutions is mining. EarthWorks is the solution of choice for those regions focused on safely storing waste behind dams, organizations interested in locating underground pipe leaks, or those needing stable ground to transport material and support heavy equipment. EarthWorks has the ability to assess multiple situations at once and supports diverse mining applications.

There are numerous examples of infrastructure failures related to tailings dams in mines which have caused massive property destruction and injury. In 2015, a mining tailings dam in British Columbia, Canada failed and released millions of cubic meters of water and tailings into nearby lakes and rivers. The failure was caused by poor design and lack of maintenance of the dam. In 2019, a mining dam in Brazil collapsed following heavy rainfall, causing a catastrophic mudslide that killed over 250 people. The dam was over 40 years old and had not been properly maintained.

These examples highlight the importance of vigilance in the monitoring, maintenance, and updating of aged infrastructure related to mines, such as dams, tailings ponds, roadways, and railways to prevent water damage and other potential hazards. They also underscore the critical importance of ensuring the safety of workers in mines and those in the region.

The maintenance and monitoring of roads and bridges using geospatial technology is another way to prevent massive destruction and loss of life. In 2018, a bridge in Italy collapsed after heavy rainfall, killing many people and injuring others. The bridge was over 50 years old and had not been properly maintained. More recently, in 2021, a giant sinkhole opened up in Naples, Italy swallowing a car and a person, but fortunately without causing injuries. In Italy and other aged cities where the infrastructure is old, damage from subsurface moisture or lack of maintenance can be easily mitigated using ASTERRA EarthWorks.

Moisture is a cause of roadway infrastructure failure, and since there are millions of miles of roads, monitoring for this problem used to be viewed as an impossible challenge. EarthWorks disrupted this, and now the task is simple. There are approximately 4 million miles of roads in the U.S., 160,000 kilometers of roads in Italy, and 229,890 kilometers of roads in Germany, to name just a few regions. It would be impossible to monitor subsurface moisture on entire roadways and bridges without EarthWorks. Because EarthWorks covers vast areas and penetrates up to 10 feet beneath asphalt and concrete, any time of day and in any weather, its efficiency is unmatched.

These examples extend to the vast network of railways used to transport people, supplies, industrial products, and natural resources. Unseen, unknown pockets of moisture are compromising areas along railways across the world. This includes over 148,000 miles (238,000 km) of U.S. rail lines. Many recent derailments are likely to be attributed to poorly maintained rail infrastructure. EarthWorks can monitor large areas at once, including the hillsides above and below railway tracks, well beyond the right of way. ASTERRA has multiple successful projects for railway maintenance. Recently, we reported on a successful EarthWorks project in France where EarthWorks was used to efficiently isolate the cause of infrastructure failure.

EarthWorks can also be used to monitor property. Airports, office parks, and other installations represent hundreds of thousands of acres of asphalt or concrete where an infrastructure failure, such as a sinking foundation, could have severe impact. EarthWorks penetrates the pavement to monitor these properties over time to spot moisture issues before they become safety issues.

Making the monitoring of aged infrastructure a regular part of an asset management program is no longer a wish for the future. ASTERRA makes it easy to add the EarthWorks solution to the asset management toolbox, which goes a long way toward avoiding colossal disasters.

Please contact us to learn more about ASTERRA’s solutions.

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