Michigan Dam Failure

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Last week Michigan’s Edenville Dam failed, triggering catastrophic flooding. While the exact causes of dam’s failure are not yet clear, this video of the collapse provides some interesting hints.

As the video begins, we see water that’s already trickled down the slope, potentially a sign that the top of the dam has already degraded. Then a noticeable bulge forms near the bottom of the earthwork slope, followed quickly by a landslide. Water doesn’t pour out immediately, though. That delay suggests that only part of the dam’s thickest section failed in the landslide. During the delay, the remaining interior of the dam is failing from the sudden lack of support. Then, the floodwaters come pouring out.

From the sequence of events, it seems likely that the dam was suffering from soil liquefaction prior to the collapse. With high water levels behind the dam, pressure can drive water into the soil beneath the dam, reducing its strength. You can see this effect in action in this video and this one. For more on the Edenville dam specifically, check out the great analysis over at AGU from Dave Petley (1, 2).

Sadly, failures like these are quite avoidable, provided dams are properly maintained. Climate change is drastically altering precipitation patterns across the world, and without updating and reworking our infrastructure to account for that, we’ll see more failures like this in the future. (Video and image credit: L. Coleman/MLive; via Earther; see also D. Petley 1, 2)

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