Posted in Geotechnical Engineering, Soil Mechanics

Mexico City’s surprising crisis: the city is sinking

The city with a metropolitan population of over 20 million is sinking at a rate of almost 50 centimeters (20 inches) per year — and this isn’t stopping anytime soon.

At first glance, you’d be inclined to attribute this to the strong earthquakes that sometimes strike Mexico City. But while earthquakes can cause their own damage, they’re not the main culprit here. Instead, it’s something much more inconspicuous: subsidence.

You can read it all here. Put into geotechnical terms, the bed of old Lake Texcoco has some very high void ratio soils, and as a large city puts pressure on them the void ratio decreases as the voids between the soil grains shrink. Thus the entire city has severe settlement, total and differential.

A diagram, from the Swedish geotechnical engineer and academic Bengt Broms, showing how we consider the volume and mass/weight relationships in soil. The particulate matter of the soil means that the soil mass has three components: solid (particles,) water (in the voids) and gas/air (also in the voids.) That simplification is shown above, along with the definition of void ratio.
A diagram, again from Bengt Broms, illustrating the problem in Mexico City and whenever what we call consolidation settlement takes place. The soil particles have been combined into one mass (hatched area.) As pressure is applied, the particles come closer to each other and the volume of the voids decreases, thus we have settlement.
A photo from Mexico City showing the effects of subsidence many years ago. The top of the pole was originally the ground surface before structures were built on it and subsidence started. The photo and an explanation can be found in the textbook Soils in Construction. Needless to say, it’s only gotten worse in the intervening years. Photo courtesy of J.R. Bell.

My own lecture on the subject of settlement and consolidation is here.


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