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Paper No. 9.



May 28-30, 2012 - TAORMINA (ITALY)

, Pangiotis SITARENIOS


A motorway embankment build on soft peaty soil, which has been improved by vibroreplacement (stone
columns) and preloading is examined with respect to its seismic performance. For the assessment of the
amount of coseismic permanent displacements, simple sliding block methods are compared with more
complex two dimensional dynamic analyses, performed by a finite difference code (FLAC). The
embankment deformation is calculated for two action levels in order to provide the basis for assessment of
embankment performance. It is suggested that the performance criteria of such embankments is not always
rational to relate to a single displacement parameter. Motorway pavement serviceability and damage is more
directly related to extensional deformation and angular distortion of embankment crest. For this reason the
acceptable displacements (as a single parameter), is difficult to set in a rational manner.

Keywords: embankment on soft ground, organic soils, permanent seismic displacements, performance


Observations from past earthquakes indicate that low to medium high earth embankments or levees, resting
on soft clayey soils rarely experience catastrophic damage, unless liquefaction either of the embankment
material or of sandy lenses in the subsoil is involved (Okamura and Tamamura, 2011, Towhata I., 2008).
However, under severe earthquake events significant permanent displacements are anticipated and should be
evaluated in conjunction with serviceability and pavement reparability criteria.

In this context, traditional limit equilibrium analyses and the factor of safety approach have little to offer in
evaluating the embankment performance. Simplified procedures for the evaluation of earthquake induced
permanent displacements in slopes have been developed significantly the last ten years (for a review see
Bray J., 2007). Despite their inherent simplifying assumptions in modeling the embankment response they
have the advantage that they quantitatively address the effect of the strong ground motion uncertainty on the
resulting displacements. On the other hand they provide only a single parameter of slope deformation which
is used as an index to assess embankment performance in many cases in an arbitrary manner.

A more insightful study of the seismic response and performance of embankments in soft ground is achieved
through elaborate dynamic analyses of two and three dimensional finite element/differences models. Since
these models provide a more complete deformation pattern of the embankment they allow a more justifiable
evaluation of the embankment loss of serviceability and the extent of the required post earthquake repairs. At
the same time it is possible to consider explicitly the actual ground properties and stratigraphy, as well as to

Senior Engineer OTM S.A. Koumarianou 6 Athens 11473 Greece, e-mail:
PhD Candidate, National Technical University of Athens, Greece.
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May 2012, 28-30 - Taormina, Italy
evaluate ground improvement effects. The practical limit to the number of records selected to represent
seismic hazard, should not shadow the large scatter associated with strong motion variability and the
resulting scatter in embankment expected displacements and deformations.
In this context, a motorway embankment build on soft peaty soil, which has been improved by
vibroreplacement (stone columns) and subsequent preloading, is examined with respect to its seismic
performance. For the assessment of the amount of coseismic permanent displacements, simple sliding block
methods are compared with more complex two dimensional dynamic analyses, performed by a finite
difference code. The embankment deformation is calculated for two action levels, to provide the basis for
assessment of embankment performance.


The motorway embankment under consideration has been constructed in SW Peloponnese (Southern Greece)
for the crossing of the floodplain of Pamisos River. The area was a marshland till 1963, when it was
reclaimed by the construction of a drainage canal. The area is covered by recent sedimentary deposits, which
consist of very soft and compressible low plasticity organic clays to organic silts, with some erratic sand
lenses. At its deepest point the upper soft peaty stratum reaches a thickness of 12 m. Below this soft layer
lies a layer of less compressible low plasticity clay 2 m thick which in turn is underlained by dense to very
dense sandy alluvial deposits. The motorway embankment has a crest width of 28 m and at the most critical
section it reaches a height of 4.0 meters. Embankment slopes were designed relatively steep 3:2 to limit
expropriation limits. Well graded sandy gravels with less than 4% fines were available as fill material for the
construction of the embankment.

In order to safely raise the embankment and control long term settlements, some improvement of the
foundation soils and a staged construction of the embankment was deemed necessary. The layer of the soft
peaty silts/clays was improved by the installation of stone columns. The stone columns were 80 in diameter
and they have been installed by a bottom feed vibroreplacement method, at a square pattern #2.75 m 2.75
m. The wide spacing of the stone columns, which results to a fairly low area replacement ratio a=0.065,
reflects the intension to use the stone columns primarily as vertical drains to accelerate consolidation. The
vibroreplacement intend also to compact the erratic loose sand lenses, in order to safeguard against pore
pressure build up and liquefaction of the embankment foundation soil during the design earthquake. The
construction of the embankment was performed in three lifts after the completion of the vibroreplacement.
The third lift was 1.5 m higher to the final crest level, to provide some preloading and it has been removed
after the completion of consolidation.

Figure 1 present photographs from the construction phase. A bottom feed vibroreplacement procedure has
been adopted for the construction of the stone columns. A thick gravel layer was laid on top of the stone
columns to provide drainage and to limit differential settlements of the embankment. The settlements were
monitored during construction with settlement plates. Each subsequent lifting of the embankment was
performed after the completion of a significant percentage of the consolidation at each subsequent stage. The
average settlements measured, including the settlements due to the preloading phase, were of the order of 80
to 100cm, reaching higher values up to 150cm or more, in the region where the maximum thickness of the
soft peaty stratum was located. Significant differential settlements were observed in sections corresponding
to the same depth of peaty soil and embankment height, indicating both the high inhomogenity of the peaty
formation and the random presence of sand lenses. As far as the consolidation times are concerned, a three
months period was needed on average to reach a consolidation ratio of 90%.

II International Conference on Performance Based Design in Earthquake Geotechnical Engineering

May 2012, 28-30 - Taormina, Italy

Figure 1. Vibro replacement and embankment construction


The site investigation on the floodplain crossing comprised exploratory boreholes with in-situ SPT testing,
CPT soundings, and vane testing. The upper soft stratum is quite variable and comprises organic silts and
silty clays with sand lenses. In lower elevations the organic content is reduced and many samples are
classified as clays or silty clays. Samples of the upper soft layer had initial water contents ranging from
w=50%-130% and void ratios from e=2.5-4.0. The density of the organic silts is very low and ranges
between 1250 to 1350 Mg/m
. However some samples with a small percentage of organic content, retrieved
from the upper stratum, have significantly higher densities in the range 1800-1850 Mg/m
. Organic content
ranged from 10% to 35% with a tendency to decrease with depth (i.e. the higher values were measured in the
upper 4 meters). The organic silt/clay is slightly fibrous in the upper four meters and more decomposed and
amorphous with increasing depth.

SPT testing in the upper soft layer yielded zero resistance to penetration. CPT soundings reveal a CPT tip
resistance of the order of 100 kPa and a tip/friction ratio between 2% and 5%. The erratic sand lenses which
are found within the upper soft layer in many cases prohibited the completion of the CPT probing at the
entire stratum thickness. Vane tests gave Su values between 12 and 15 kPa. At the deeper sections of the
stratum, where organic content is reduced, higher Su values have been measured, of the order of Su=25-
35kPa. Figure 2 depicts a cross section of the embankment along with typical SPT and CPT test results.

The increase of the undrained shear strength underneath the embankment after the consolidation has been
assessed on the basis of the ratio a=S
, which on the basis of empirical relations is estimated to be of the
order of 0.2 to 0.3. A conservative value of a=S
=0.22 was assumed for stability as well as for the
dynamic analyses.
II International Conference on Performance Based Design in Earthquake Geotechnical Engineering

May 2012, 28-30 - Taormina, Italy
Figure 2. Typical cross section of the motorway embankment. The soft peaty layer is improved by
stone columns. Dashed lines indicate overloading for acceleration of consolidation.

The shear wave velocity V
of the stratum has been evaluated on the basis of empirical relations that relate
CPT test results with small strain stiffness. The Mayne and Rix (1995) relation for clayey soils, indicate that
the shear wave velocity of the peaty layer should be of the order of:

Vs= 9.44 (q
=3545 m/sec

Another database from sites in clays, silts and sands reported by Mayne (2006) showed that Vs relates
directly with sleeve friction. This empirical relation lead to higher Vs values, of the order:

Vs= 118.8 log(f
)+18.5 = 90100m/sec

A significant amount of experimental data on organic clays mainly from the U.S. and Japan (for a review see
Kinshasa et al., 2009), indicate that the small strain stiffness of organic soils depend strongly on the
confining pressure and to a smaller extent on the preconsolidation pressure. The variation of the shear wave
velocity with depth, as well as its increase underneath the embankment due to increased stresses after
consolidation, can be estimated on the basis of the Kushida et al., (2006) regression model. According to this
work the small strain modulus can be expressed by the formula:

m n
o = where:

) 23 / exp( 1
37 . 0 1
= and
) 23 / exp( 1
4 . 0 8 . 0

OCR is the Overconsolidation Ratio and OC the Organic Content.

On the basis of the aforementioned model the shear wave velocity below the embankment in comparison
with free field values (adjusted empirically to fit CPT test results) are calculated and presented in figure 3.
II International Conference on Performance Based Design in Earthquake Geotechnical Engineering

May 2012, 28-30 - Taormina, Italy
Organic soils present relatively linear behaviour up to significantly high strain levels, with the normalized
behaviour being similar to those of very high plasticity clays. Normalized secant shear modulus values
) have been found to increase with increasing consolidation stress, while equivalent damping ratios
() decrease with increasing consolidation stress. Kushida et al. (2009) present a regression model for G/G
and damping () versus strain curves for various stress levels and organic content. The dynamic properties of
the peaty stratum in the free field and directly below the embankment have been evaluated on the basis of
this model. The respective G/G
curves are also presented in figure 3. In the same figure the G/G
for non plastic soils given by Vucetic and Dobry (1991), assigned to the lower sandy stratum, is also

Figure 3. Estimated shear wave velocity profile and stiffness degradation curves for the organic
clays/silts in the free field and below the embankment. The G/Gmax curve for non plastic soil
(Vucetic and Dobry 1991) is also shown for comparison


The site is located in a seismically active area of Southern Greece. According to the seismic zonation maps
of Greece, included in the Greek code as well as to the respective national annex of EC8, a peak ground
acceleration of 0.24 g is foreseen as a basic design value for the actual site. This value corresponds to rock
outcrop motion with a 10% probability of exceedance in 50 years (475 years return period event). This return
period is associated with the non collapse design requirement. For the damage limitation requirement a
probability of exceedance 10% in 10 years period (i.e. a 95 years return period event) is considered. Given
the fact that the seismic hazard curve is not provided by the codes and a site specific hazard analysis has not
been performed the design acceleration for this more frequent event is calculated following the methodology
proposed by EC8 (part 1 par 2.1). The code proposes to adjust the importance factor I to the actual
reliability level associated with the return period of the design event according to the relation




where T
is the return period for which the extrapolation is applied and T
is the reference return period.
The value of the exponent k depends on the seismicity and represents the shape of the hazard curve and is
generally of the order of k=3 For the studied case the importance factor is:
( ) 58 . 0
= =



The values for the two design levels are summarized in table 1.
II International Conference on Performance Based Design in Earthquake Geotechnical Engineering

May 2012, 28-30 - Taormina, Italy

Table 1. Performance levels and design value of Peak Ground Accelereation

Period T
Performance Level I
Damage Limitation/Serviceability Limit State.
95 0.14
Performance Level II
Stability Limit State
475 0.24

The tectonic activity which controls the seismic hazard is dominated by two mechanisms: thrusting along the
western part of the Hellenic Arc and extension at the interior of the Arc. The first mechanism is associated
with large but infrequent earthquakes, which are affecting the site from a distance, while the latter is
associated by small to medium size events with a potential to strike the site from very close distances. The
Kalamata 1981 (M=6.0) earthquake is a characteristic example for the small event, while the Philiatra 1886
event (M=7.5) that struck the south western tip of the Peloponnese represent the hazard from a large
earthquake occurring along the arc. Since the site under examination is located to the west of that region the
effects of a large earthquake occurring at the arch thrusting zone are expected to be of secondary importance.
The seismotectonic setting of the site is outlined in figure 3. Shading indicates the meizoseismal areas of the
Kalamata 1986 earthquake and the Philiatra 1886 events referred previously.
Figure 4. Tectonic setting of the site area. Shading indicates the meizoseismal areas of the
Kalamata 1986 earthquake and the Philiatra 1886 events. (extracted and modified by Lyon-Caen
et al. 1986)
II International Conference on Performance Based Design in Earthquake Geotechnical Engineering

May 2012, 28-30 - Taormina, Italy
A set of four strong motion records was selected deliberately from the Greek strong motion database HEAD
(Theodulides et al., 2004). The selection criteria include similarity of the tectonic regime, magnitudes and
source to site distances within the range of the expected earthquakes and peak ground accelerations similar to
the design acceleration of 0.24 g. The selected records are shown in figure 4. The Kalamata 1986 and the
Aigion 1995 records are examples of relatively small but damaging earthquakes recoded at very short site to
source distances. Both records are believed to have been affected by directivity effects. The Thessaloniki
1978 record represents a bigger event recorded to a greater distance. The low frequency content of this
record is attributed to the fairly soft soil conditions at the recording site (City Hotel). The Xylokastro 1981
record also represent a medium size earthquake and was also recorded in a soil site. The four records were
scaled to 0.24 g to meet the design criteria for the stability limit state. In figure 4 the response spectra of the
scaled records are compared with the design spectrum provided by EC8.

Figure 5. Unscaled earthquake records selected for dynamic analysis (left) and response spectra of
the scaled time histories (PGA=0.24 g) in comparison with the design spectrum (right).

II International Conference on Performance Based Design in Earthquake Geotechnical Engineering

May 2012, 28-30 - Taormina, Italy
Dynamic Response and Permanent Displacements
A series of dynamic analyses has been performed by the finite difference code FLAC. The Mohr-Coulomb
elastoplastic constitutive model has been used to simulate elastic response and yielding of the soil. The
stiffness degradation with strain during dynamic response as well as dissipation of energy is captured by the
hysteretic damping formulation incorporated in the code and described in detail by Cundall (2006). In this
formulation the shear moduli of the soil materials are adjusted during the explicit calculation scheme on the
basis of the defined modulus degradation curves. For the peat material the curves presented in figure 3 have
been used while for the underlying sand and stiff clay layers G/G
curves quoted by Kramer (1996) have
been considered. In order to simplify the modeling, the average stiffness and strength values of each stratum
were assigned, neglecting their increase with depth. The mesh of the central part of the model is depicted in
figure 6 along with the shear wave velocity values assigned to each stratum. The stone columns have not
been modeled explicitly, given the small replacement ratio adopted by the ground improvement design.
However their presence has been taken into account by an appropriate increase of the shear strength of the
improved soil. The model was analyzed for the set of acceleration time histories selected, with various
scaling factors to calculate permanent crest displacements for a range of excitation levels.

Figure 6. Finite difference grid and shear wave velocity values of the soil strata.

The observed response of the embankment is characterized by deep sliding at the interface of the organic soil
with the underlying stiff clay and sand layer, horizontal displacements of the soil underneath the
embankment and settlement of the central part of the embankment. Maximum crest displacements are of the
order of 10-20 cm for the stability limit state and of the order of 5-7 cm for the damage limitation state.
Despite the significant deformation of the underlying soil, on the basis of this set of calculations, the
motorway pavement settles in a uniform manner and its extensional deformation is fairly limited. The
general deformation pattern is presented in figure 7.

The fairly uniform deformation pattern of the embankment and the underlying ground, depicted in figure 7,
is altered significantly if the spatial variability of the stiffness and strength properties of the soft peaty
stratum is taken into account. A series of models with random, but spatially correlated strength and stiffness
properties has been set up and analyzed, using the Kalamata 1986 record as excitation, in order to study the
effect of inherent ground variability of foundation soft ground on embankment performance. Strength and
stiffness properties of each soil element are correlated in order to simulate soft and hard spots in the
mesh. coefficient of variation equal to 35% for the stiffness (G
) and strength properties (S
) has been
assumed for the unimproved soil, while for the improved soil a reduced coefficient of variation of 10% has
been considered more appropriate. Four models have been set up in total and the corresponding soil variation
patterns are depicted in figure 8. The dynamic response of the embankment and the underlying soft soil is
characterized in this case, by the development of strain localization, which controls the deformation pattern
of the embankment and subsequently the performance of the motorway pavement constructed on top of it.
The development of the shear banding for each pattern considered is also presented in figure 8.
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May 2012, 28-30 - Taormina, Italy

Figure 7. Response of the embankment to the Kalamata 1986 record. Displacements are in cm.

Figure 8. Patterns of spatial variation of strength and stiffness parameters (left column) and
resulting shear strains and shear banding (right) in response to the Kalamata 1986 record.

II International Conference on Performance Based Design in Earthquake Geotechnical Engineering

May 2012, 28-30 - Taormina, Italy
The increase of the residual deformation values at the crest edge (both sides of embankment), by scaling up
the four selected records are presented in figure 9 (uniform model). The widely scattered displacement values
which correspond to the four earthquake records are indicative of the poor correlation of the slope seismic
displacements with peak ground acceleration. This scatter is significantly reduced if slope displacements are
correlated with the peak ground velocity or spectral values of the records. Crest displacement values
predicted by the dynamic analyses are in a fair agreement to the displacement values derived by the
simplified method proposed by Bray and Travasarou (2007) also shown in figure 9.

In figure 10 the effect of the inherent ground variability on the seismic embankment displacements is
presented. It is shown that maximum displacements may be significantly higher than the predictions of the
homogeneous model. However, by comparing figure 9 and 10 it is evident that the uncertainty of the
maximum crest displacement attributed to the inherent ground variability is small compared to the
uncertainty associated with strong ground motion.

0.1 0.15 0.2 0.25 0.3 0.35
Peak Ground Acceleration (g)

Kalamata 86
Aigio 95
Thessaloniki 78
Xylokastro 81
0.1 0.15 0.2 0.25 0.3 0.35
Peak Ground Acceleration (g)

R.F. 1
R.F. 2
R.F. 3
R.F. 4

Figure 9. Permanent crest displacements for
the four records, in comparison with
predictions of the simplified Bray and
Travasarou (2007) method. Solid thick line:
median value. Solid thin lines: 16%-84%
exceedance range.
Figure 10. Permanent embankment crest
displacements for the Kalamata 1986 record,
corresponding to the homogeneous model (shaded
zone) and to the four random field realizations
considered in the analysis.

Performance Criteria
The difficulty in establishing performance criteria for embankments and levees has been discussed
extensively by Towhata (2008). Since extensive slope deformation of a motorway embankment does not
pose a direct threat to human life (it may be different for a high speed railway embankment), the amount of
deformation that will result in prolonged motorway service disruption, or that will involve difficult or very
expensive repair works, provide the basis to establish the performance criteria. Towhata (2008) used expert
opinion to weight the various factors and provided guidance on the allowable displacements. The allowable
displacements as a function of the affected area and required restoration period assessed on the basis of this
work are presented in figure 11. Since the examined motorway section is part of the national network, in
order to ensure a restoration period of 1-2 weeks, the slope displacements should be limited to 30-50 cm.

This approach provides a good guidance for ordinary embankment design and it is suggested to be used in
conjunction with simplified methods of assessing the permanent slope displacements. However, it provides a
performance criterion for the ultimate limit state only and does not provide guidance on the allowable
displacements relevant to the serviceability limit state. Features that would limit damage and loss of
functionality at this level and therefore prevent the need for relatively frequent repairs (e.g. geotextiles or
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May 2012, 28-30 - Taormina, Italy
geogrids underneath the motorway pavement or at embankment foundation level) can not be evaluated on
that basis. An assessment on the loss of serviceability would be easier to be evaluated on the basis of the
opening and frequency of cracks (gaps or steps) likely to appear at the carriageway after the seismic shaking.

In this context, Tokida et al. (2007) conducted driving tests to investigate the relation between allowable
pavement step height (resulting from coseismic distortions) and vehicle driving velocity. The test procedure
and the test results are summarized in figure 12. In this figure, the maximum step height, a vehicle is capable
to be driven over at a certain driving velocity is given, in order to define the level of post earthquake
serviceability. It can be observed that 2-3 cm of step height can be tolerated without reduction of traffic
speed and need for immediate repairs. Steps 5-10 cm high, would allow motorway operation with
significantly reduced traffic speeds (15-20 km/h). The passage of emergency vehicles would be possible for
step heights up to 20-25 cm. Although this research was limited to pavement steps it is believed that
pavement crack widths (gap opening) should remain below the same limits (or slightly higher) to maintain
the respective levels of serviceability.

Figure 11. Relationship between allowable displacements and size of affected area in terms of
allowable restoration time (after Towata 2008)

Figure 12. Driving tests through pavement steps and relationship between step height and
allowable vehicle velocity (after Tokida et al., 2007)
II International Conference on Performance Based Design in Earthquake Geotechnical Engineering

May 2012, 28-30 - Taormina, Italy
From the numerical analyses presented in the previous paragraphs, the deformation pattern at the
carriageway level, i.e. axial strains and angular distortions imposed at the pavement level, are readily
available. The deformation pattern can be interpreted in terms of step and gap development on the
carriageway. In figure 13 an example of deformed mesh (excessively magnified) is depicted, along with
identification of probable locations of step and gap development. Despite the fact that the Tokida et al.,
(2007) performance levels have been defined considering steps crossing the traffic direction, while the
calculated steps by the two dimensional models are running along the traffic direction, the use of these limits
provide a reasonable starting point for embankment performance assessment. It is also expected, and
frequently observed in post earthquake field studies, that carriageway cracks run for fairly short distances
along the traffic axis and then turn towards the edge to produce ellipsoidal failure surfaces in plan, crossing
in one way or another the traffic lanes. This effect is also attributed to spatial variability of soil properties in
a three dimensional space and inevitable geometric variations of embankment height and thickness of soft

In a more quantitative way, the angular distortions and axial strains calculated at the embankment crest level,
for the serviceability limit state and the stability limit state are presented in figure 14. In this figure the
results of the homogeneous model as well as the results of the models with a spatial variation of the soil
properties are compared. The small and probably unrealistic level of distortions predicted by the
homogeneous model can be noted in this figure. From the results of the other models it can be estimated that
crack widths (gaps) of the order of 1.5 cm for the serviceability limit state and 7.5 cm for the ultimate limit
state are likely to develop at carriage level. Steps of the order of 1-2 cm and 2-5 cm for the serviceability
limit state and the ultimate limit state respectively, are anticipated. These levels of carriageway damage
according to the criteria presented previously (figure 12) can be considered as tolerable.

Figure 13. Mode of deformation and step development


Two dimensional dynamic analyses of embankments on soft soils, provide an insightful means to study their
seismic response and performance, even in cases where only conventional site investigation data is available.
In these cases spatial variability of the soil properties should be considered in the modeling in order to
simulate a realistic pattern of embankment deformation. Performance criteria in these analyses should go
beyond permanent displacements and to consider pavement crack width opening and step development. It is
recognized that the complexity of such analyses and the large number of assumptions required may shadow
in some cases the actual performance. The use of simplified procedures to estimate slope displacements
provide an anchoring point when experimental or other empirical evidence is not available.

II International Conference on Performance Based Design in Earthquake Geotechnical Engineering

May 2012, 28-30 - Taormina, Italy
Figure 14. Angular distortion and axial strain imposed at pavement level (embankment crest) for
the serviceability limit state (left) and the stability limit state (right). Solid black line results from
a homogeneous numerical model. Thin lines results from models with spatially variable stiffness
and strength properties


We benefited from fruitful discussions with Dr K.Plytas and M.Pachakis regarding the properties of organic
soils and the effect of the ground improvement procedures on them. T.Travasarou kindly read the manuscript
and provided insightful comments. This work was carried out with support from OTM S.A. and is greatly
appreciated by the authors.


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