Understanding the performance of highway embankments on degraded permafrost
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Roads and highways in cold regions are negatively affected by settlement of embankments in areas of degraded or degrading permafrost, particularly in areas with mean annual temperatures close to 0°C where permafrost is locally discontinuous. Climate warming and human activities can lead to increases in the temperature of permafrost and to thawing. In regions of discontinuous permafrost, thawing may produce thickening of the active layer, large settlements and non-recoverable shear deformations. These can cause potentially dangerous trafficability issues. The research program involved a test site on Provincial Road PR391, about 18 km northwest of Thompson, Manitoba. The foundation material of PR391 is currently classified as “degraded (thawed) permafrost”. The purpose of this research was to investigate and understand the performance of highway embankments on thawed permafrost. The research involved field instrumentation and data collection, laboratory testing, thermal modelling and frost heave predictions. The results of the field instrumentation and data collection show net heat flow into the ground, as well as development of cyclic seasonal gradients of total head. This is believed to be a significant original contribution to understanding the effects of climate change on highway infrastructure. The results also show that displacements observed at the PR391 embankment are a combination of consolidation and shearing strain of the foundation material. Most studies of embankments concentrate on vertical settlements. This research shows that horizontal movements are also present, a contribution that helps explain the mechanism of lateral spreading. The results of the laboratory testing show that the mechanical and shearing properties of the soil collected from the PR391 embankment are not significantly affected by differences in temperature once water in the soil has actually thawed. The results of the thermal modelling show reasonable trends in simulated ground temperatures compared with the data obtained from the thermistors underneath the embankment. The frost heave prediction of PR391 shows that in situ frost heave characteristics can be estimated by applying the Segregation Potential (SP) frost heave method in field conditions. This provides a valuable field study to the limited number of such studies of Segregation Potential, which are normally done under laboratory conditions.