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The Planar Shape of Rock Joints

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Knowing the planar shape of discontinuities is important when characterizing discontinuities in a rock mass. However, the real discontinuity shape is rarely known, since the rock mass is usually inaccessible in three dimensions. Information on discontinuity shape is limited and often open to more than one interpretation. This paper discusses the planar shape of rock joints, the most common discontinuities in rock. First, a brief literature review about the shape of joints is presented, including some information on joint-surface morphology, inferences from observed trace lengths on different sampling planes, information based on experimental studies, and joint shapes assumed by different researchers. This review shows that joints not affected by adjacent geological structures such as bedding boundaries or pre-existing fractures tend to be elliptical (or approximately circular but rarely). Joints affected by or intersecting such geological structures tend to be rectangular. Then, using the general stereological relationship between trace length distributions and joint size distributions developed by Zhang et al. (Geotechnique 52(6):419–433, 2002) for elliptical joints, the effect of sampling plane orientation on trace lengths is investigated. This study explains why the average trace lengths of non-equidimensional (elliptical or similar polygonal) joints on two sampling planes can be about equal and thus the conclusion that rock joints are equidimensional (circular) drawn from the fact that the average trace lengths on two sampling planes are approximately equal can be wrong. Finally, methods for characterizing the shape and size of joints (elliptical or rectangular) from trace length data are recommended, and the appropriateness of using elliptical joint shapes to represent polygonal, especially rectangular, joints is discussed.

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  1. The terms joint and fracture will be used interchangeably as is often the case in the engineering literature.


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Correspondence to Lianyang Zhang.

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Zhang, L., Einstein, H.H. The Planar Shape of Rock Joints. Rock Mech Rock Eng 43, 55–68 (2010).

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