Subsurface condition assessment of critical dam infrastructure with non-invasive geophysical sensing

Michalis, Panagiotis and Sentenac, Philippe (2021) Subsurface condition assessment of critical dam infrastructure with non-invasive geophysical sensing. Environmental Earth Sciences, 80 (17). 556. ISSN 1866-6280 (

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Recent cases of dam failures indicate that the safe operation and proactive maintenance of critical infrastructure is of significant importance considering the growing number of ageing dams and the increase in intensity and frequency of extreme climatic events. The current procedures to assess the performance of dam infrastructure, usually based on geodetic and geotechnical instrumentation, do not provide repeatable and reliable information with regard to subsurface hazards that evolve within the body of earth-fill dams that could compromise the integrity of the structure. This increases the risk of failure with significant socio-economic impacts and long-term disruption on downstream communities. On the contrary, geophysical methods can provide advanced information about subsurface hazards and can therefore significantly assist to define the safety level of dam infrastructure. This will enable early remedial maintenance and repair actions to be carried out enhancing public safety and eventually reducing costs for asset owners. This study presents for the first time the investigation of the condition of three reservoir dams in Scotland with the application of two complementary non-invasive geophysical methods coupled with visual inspection. Electromagnetic (EM) sensing was initially employed to provide an assessment of the upper soil layers of the crest and downstream shoulder of the dam. Electrical Resistivity Tomography (ERT) arrays were then installed on the crest to assess the subsurface conditions of the dam based on the resistivity signatures. The analysis of the geophysical models identified weak zones within the body of dams associated with high-resistivity patterns associated with potential animal burrowing activity and fissuring on the crest of the dam. The electrical resistivity surveys revealed low-resistivity zones influenced by seepage conditions inside the body of dams but also provided an indication of potential internal erosion areas. Finally, the geophysical models provided an insight of the homogeneity of the fill material and determined the dam foundation characteristics. The geophysical results presented in this investigation provide important baseline measurements and key information about the current condition and on-going performance of dam infrastructure.