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Expansive and Collapsible Soil
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Expansive and collapsible soils are some of the most widely distributed and costly of geologic hazards. These soils are subject to changes in volume and settlement in response to wetting and drying, often resulting in severe damage to structures.

Geology and climate play significant roles in the distribution of these problematic soils . Soils capable of expansion can occur in both tropical and arid climates; however, those located in arid and semi-arid regions are subject to more extreme cycles of expansion and contraction than those located in more consistently moist areas. Collapsible soils are most often encountered in arid climates, where wind and intermittent streams deposit loose sediment (Mulvey, 1992, Rollins et al., 1992). 

The next sections provide details on expansive and collapsible soils, and what can be done to reduce potential damage due to these geologic hazards. 

Expansive Soil and Rock

Expansive soil and rock are characterized by clayey material that shrinks and swells as it dries or becomes wet, respectively. In addition, trees and shrubs placed closely to a structure can lead to soil drying and subsequent shrinkage. The parent (source) rock most associated with expansive soils is shale, which can also be expansive. The volumetric changes associated with expansive soil comprises one of the most expensive of geologic hazards - resulting in approximately $300 million in damages to family homes annually. Structural damage due to expansive soils is most prominent in Texas and Colorado, but it is also common through much of the central and western United States. 

Problems often associated with expansive soils include:

  1. Foundation cracks;
  2. Heaving and cracking of floor slabs and walls;
  3. Jammed doors and windows;
  4. Ruptured pipeliness; and
  5. Heaving and cracking of sidewalks and roads

Geologists work with geotechnical engineers to evaluate soil and rock prone to shrinking and swelling. These areas are mapped and denoted for their expansion potential. Expansive soil and rock be removed and replaced with non-expansive materials to provide a suitable foundation for new structures. Expansive materials can also be chemically treated, preloaded, or prewetted to decrease swell potential.


Map of expansive soil distribution in the United States.

Image courtesy of US Army Corps of Engineers.

Photograph of expansive soils under very dry conditions. Severe soil shrinkage has resulted in desiccation cracks.

Photograph courtesy of

Collapsible Soil Overview

Collapsible soils consist of loose, dry, low-density materials that collapse and compact under the addition of water or excessive loading. These soils are distributed throughout the southwestern United States, specifically in areas of young alluvial fans, debris flow sediments, and loess (wind-blown sediment) deposits. Soil collapse occurs when the land surface is saturated at depths greater than those reached by typical rain events. This saturation eliminates the clay bonds holding the soil grains together (Mulvey, 1992). Similar to expansive soils, collapsible soils result in structural damage such as cracking of the foundation, floors, and walls in response to settlement. In one particular case of soil collapse, 14 houses in a Cedar City, Utah neighborhood had to be jacked off their foundations and relocated due to severe settlement (Rollins et al., 1992). 

Human activities that facilitate soil collapse include:

  1. Irrigation;
  2. Water impoundment;
  3. Watering the lawn;
  4. Changing the natural drainage; and
  5. Disposal of wastewater

Geologists work with geotechnical engineers to identify soils prone to collapse and evaluate their potential to fail under loading and/or saturation. Collapsible soil be removed and replaced with approved and properly compacted materials. Collapsible materials can also be saturated (hydrocompaction) to force the soils to collapse prior to construction.

Cartoon depicting foundation failures as the result of collapsible soils. 

Courtesy of New Mexico Tech.

Structural damage due to collapsible soils in Parump, Nevada. 

Photograph courtesy of Terra Pacific Consultants

Structural damage due to collapsible soils in Parump, Nevada. 

Photograph courtesy of Terra Pacific Consultants

Links to More Information Back to top

Technical References Back to top

Engineering and Environmental Geology of Southwestern Utah, Utah Geological Association Publication 21, K.M. Harty, Editor, 1992.

Mulvey, W.E., Engineering Geologic Problems Caused by Soil and Rock in Southwestern Utah
Rollins, K.M., T. Williams, R. Bleazard, and R.L. Owens, Identification, Characterization, and Mapping of Collapsible Soils in Southwestern Utah

For more in-depth information about volcanoes, check out AEG's Technical References page.

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