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Featured article from geoscience journal

Geomorphology, 2011, Vol 134, Issue 1, p. 132-143
A preliminary analysis of failure mechanisms in karst and man-made underground caves in Southern Italy
Abstract:

Natural and anthropogenic caves may represent a potential hazard for the built environment, due to the occurrence of instability within caves, that may propagate upward and eventually reach the ground surface, inducing the occurrence of sinkholes. In particular, when caves are at shallow depth, the effects at the ground surface may be extremely severe. Apulia region (southern Italy) hosts many sites where hazard associated with sinkholes is very serious due to presence of both natural karst caves and anthropogenic cavities, the latter being mostly represented by underground quarries. The Pliocene–Pleistocene calcarenite (a typical soft rock) was extensively quarried underground, by digging long and complex networks of tunnels. With time, these underground activities have progressively been abandoned and their memory lost, so that many Apulian towns are nowadays located just above the caves, due to urban expansion in the last decades. Therefore, a remarkable risk exists for society, which should not be left uninvestigated.

The present contribution deals with the analysis of the most representative failure mechanisms observed in the field for such underground instability processes and the factors that seem to influence the processes, as for example those causing weathering of the rock and the consequent degradation of its physical and mechanical properties. Aimed at exploring the progression of instability of the cavities, numerical analyses have been developed by using both the finite element method for geological settings represented by continuous soft rock mass, and the distinct element method for jointed rock mass conditions. Both the effects of local instability processes occurring underground and the effects of the progressive enlargement of the caves on the overall stability of the rock mass have been investigated, along with the consequent failure mechanisms. In particular, degradation processes of the rock mass, as a consequence of wetting and weathering phenomena in the areas surrounding the caves, have been simulated. The results obtained from the numerical simulations have then been compared with what has been observed during field surveys and a satisfactory agreement between the numerical simulations and the instability processes, as detected in situ, has been noticed.