Acta Geotechnica

, Volume 13, Issue 1, pp 39–49 | Cite as

Theoretical analysis of desiccation crack spacing of a thin, long soil layer

  • Susanga Costa
  • Jayantha KodikaraEmail author
  • S. L. Barbour
  • D. G. Fredlund
Research Paper


Soil desiccation cracking is important for a range of engineering applications, but the theoretical advancement of this process is less than satisfactory. In particular, it is not well understood how the crack spacing-to-depth ratio depends on soil material behaviour. In the past, two approaches, namely stress relief and energy balance, have been used to predict the crack spacing-to-depth ratio. The current paper utilises these two approaches to predict the approximate spacing-to-depth ratio of parallel cracks that form in long desiccating soil layers subjected to uniform tensile stress (or suction profile) while resting on a hard base. The theoretical developments have examined the formation of simultaneous and sequential crack patterns and have identified an important relationship between the stress relief and energy approaches. In agreement with experimental observations, it was shown that the spacing-to-depth ratio decreases with layer depth, and crack spacing generally increases with layer depth. The influence of the stiffness at the base interface indicated that decreasing the basal interface stiffness makes the crack spacing to increase in sequential crack formation. The experimental observations also show a decrease in cracking water content with the decrease in layer thickness, and this behaviour was explained on the basis of a critical depth concept.


Cracking Desiccation Fracture toughness Moisture Soil Tensile strength 

List of symbols


Depth of the clay layer


Elastic modulus of clay layer


Energy consumed by crack formation (\(= G_{\text{c}} d\))


Dimensionless form of \(E_{\text{f}}\)


Crack energy release rate


Shear stiffness of the interface between clay and hard base


Fracture toughness in Mode I (pure tensile) cracking


Crack spacing


Relative displacement at the basal interface


Distance from the crack face


Water content at crack initiation


Factor of tensile strength needed to from a sequential crack


Change in normal stress in x direction

\(\Delta \varepsilon_{x} ,\Delta \varepsilon_{y} ,\Delta \varepsilon_{xy}\)

Change in strain in x and y directions

\(\Delta U,\Delta U^{*}\)

Change in strain energy and its dimensionless form

\(\sigma_{x}^{\text{av}} ,\sigma_{y}^{\text{av}} ,\tau_{xy}^{\text{av}}\)

Average normal stresses and shear stresses in x and y directions


Poisson’s ratio


Shear stress at the base of the interface


Normal stress prior to cracking


Tensile strength of soil


Horizontal stress due to an isolated crack subject to uniform compressive stress


  1. 1.
    Amarasiri AL, Kodikara JK (2013) Numerical modelling of a field desiccation test. Geotechnique 63(11):983–986CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  2. 2.
    Amarasiri AL, Kodikara JK, Costa S (2011) Numerical modelling of desiccation cracking. Int J Numer Anal Methods Geomech 35:82–96CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  3. 3.
    Ayad R, Konrad R-M, Soulié M (1997) Desiccation of sensitive clay: application of the model CRACK. Can Geotech J 34:943–951CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  4. 4.
    Bazant PZ, Cedolin L (1991) Stability of structures. Oxford University Press, OxfordzbMATHGoogle Scholar
  5. 5.
    Chertkov VY, Ravina I (1998) Modelling the crack network of swelling clay soils. Soil Sci Soc Am J 62:1162–1171CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  6. 6.
    Chertkov VY, Ravina I (1999) Morphology of horizontal cracks in swelling soils. Theor Appl Fract Mech 31:19–29CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  7. 7.
    Chertkov VY, Ravina I (2004) Networks originating from the multiple cracking of different scales in rocks and swelling soils. Int J Fract 128:263–270CrossRefzbMATHGoogle Scholar
  8. 8.
    Chiu RC, Garino TJ, Cima MJ (1993) Drying of granular ceramic films: I effect of processing variables on cracking behaviour. J Am Ceram Soc 76(9):2257–2264CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  9. 9.
    Corte A, Higashi A (1960) Experimental research on desiccation cracks in soil. Research Report, U. S. Army Snow Ice and Permafrost Research Establishment Research Report No. 66, Corps of Engineers. Wilmette, Illinois, USAGoogle Scholar
  10. 10.
    Costa S, Htike WY, Kodikara J, Xue J (2016) Determination of J-integral for clay during desiccation. Environmental Geotechnics EG6:372-378Google Scholar
  11. 11.
    Costa S, Kodikara J, Shannon B (2013) Salient factors controlling desiccation cracking of clay in laboratory experiments. Geotechnique 63(1):18–29CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  12. 12.
    Gui YL, Zhao ZY, Kodikara J, Bui HH, Yang SQ (2016) Numerical modelling of laboratory soil desiccation cracking using UDEC with a mix-mode cohesive fracture model. Eng Geol 202:14–23CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  13. 13.
    Haberfield CM, Johnston IW (1989) Relationship between fracture toughness and tensile strength for geomaterials. In: Proceedings of the 12th international conference on soil mechanics and foundation engineering, Rio de Janeiro, A.A. Balkema, 1:47–52Google Scholar
  14. 14.
    Huang M, Bruch PG, Barbour SL (2013) Evaporation and water redistribution in layered unsaturated soil profiles. Vadose Zone J 12(1).
  15. 15.
    Itasca Consulting Group (1993) FLAC, Fast Lagrangian Analysis of Continua. Ver: 3.2, Minnesota, USAGoogle Scholar
  16. 16.
    Kindle EM (1917) Some factors affecting the development of mud cracks. J Geol 25:135–144CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  17. 17.
    Kodikara JK, Barbour SL, Fredlund DG (2000) Desiccation cracking of soil layers. In: Proceedings of asian conference on unsaturated soils: from theory to practice. Edited by Rahardjo H, Toll DG, Leong EC, A.A. Balkema 693–698Google Scholar
  18. 18.
    Kodikara JK, Barbour SL, Fredlund DG (2002) Structure development in surficial heavy clay soils: a synthesis of mechanisms. Aust Geomech 37(3):25–40Google Scholar
  19. 19.
    Kodikara JK, Choi X (2006) A simplified analytical model for desiccation cracking of clay layers in laboratory tests. In: Proceedings of UNSAT 2006 conference. Edited by Miller GA, Zapata CE, Houston SL, Fredlund DG. ASCE Geotechnical Special Publication, Unsaturated Soils, 2:2558–2567Google Scholar
  20. 20.
    Kodikara JK, Nahlawi H, Bouazza A (2004) Modelling of curling in desiccating clay. Can Geotech J 41:560–566CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  21. 21.
    Konrad J-M, Ayad R (1997) An idealized framework for the analysis of cohesive soils undergoing desiccation. Can Geotech J 34:477–488CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  22. 22.
    Lachenbruch AH (1961) Depth and spacing of tension cracks. J Geophys Res 66(12):4273–4292CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  23. 23.
    Nahlawi H, Kodikara JK (2006) Laboratory experiments on desiccation cracking of thin soil layers. J Geotech Geol Eng 24:1641–1664CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  24. 24.
    Peron H, Hueckel T, Laloui L, Hu LB (2009) Fundamentals of desiccation cracking of fine-grained soils: experimental characterization and mechanisms identification. Can Geotech J 46:1177–1201CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  25. 25.
    Sanchez M, Atique A, Kim S, Romero E, Zielinski M (2013) Exploring desiccation cracks in soils using a 2D profile laser device. Acta Geotech 8:583–596CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  26. 26.
    Shin H, Santamarina JC (2011) Desiccation cracks in saturated fine-grained soils: particle-level phenomena and effective-stress analysis. Geotechnique 61(8):961–972CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  27. 27.
    Thouless MD (1990) Crack spacing in brittle films on elastic substrates. J Am Ceram Soc 73(7):2144–2146CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  28. 28.
    Vo TD, Pouya A, Hemmati S, Tang AM (2017) Numerical modelling of desiccation cracking of clayey soil using a cohesive fracture method. Comput Geotech 85:15–27CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  29. 29.
    Wang JJ, Zhu JG, Chiu CF, Zhang H (2007) Experimental study on fracture toughness and tensile strength of a clay. Eng Geol 94:65–75CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  30. 30.
    White EM (1986) Longevity and effect of tillage-formed soil surface cracks on water infiltration. J Soil Water Conserv 41(5):344–347Google Scholar

Copyright information

© Springer-Verlag GmbH Germany 2017

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.School of Engineering and ITFederation University AustraliaChurchillAustralia
  2. 2.Department of Civil EngineeringMonash UniversityVictoriaAustralia
  3. 3.Department of Civil, Geological and Environmental EngineeringUniversity of SaskatchewanSaskatoonCanada
  4. 4.Golder Associates LtdSaskatoonCanada

Personalised recommendations