Effects of porous media thickness and its hydraulic gradient history on the formation of sand boils: Experimental investigation

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Sand boils occur where groundwater discharges to the land surface under sufficient hydraulic gradient to cause internal erosion and the upward transport of particles. A proper understanding of sand boil processes is essential in evaluating a wide range of geomechanical and sediment transport situations under which groundwater seepage occurs, such as the effects of groundwater discharge on beach stability. Although various empirical methods have been developed to estimate the critical hydraulic gradient (icr) leading to sand liquefaction, a prerequisite for sand boil occurrence, the effect of sand layer thickness and the implications of driving head fluctuations on the formation and reformation of sand boils have not been explored previously. This paper uses laboratory experiments to study sand boil formation and reformation for various sand thicknesses and hydraulic gradients to fill this knowledge gap. Sand layer thicknesses of 90 mm, 180 mm and 360 mm were adopted in evaluating sand boil reactivation, which was created by imposing hydraulic head fluctuations. While the first experiment (i.e., 90 mm sand layer) yielded a value for icr smaller (by 5%) than Terzaghi's (1922) value, the same theory underestimated icr by 12% and 4% for 180 mm and 360 mm sand layers, respectively. Moreover, icr needed for the reformation of sand boils decreased by 22%, 22% and 26% (relative to icr applicable to the initial sand boil) for the 90 mm, 180 mm and 360 mm sand layer thicknesses, respectively. We conclude that the formation of sand boils requires consideration of sand depth and the history of sand boil formation, particularly in relation to sand boils that form (and potentially reform) under oscillating pressures (e.g., tidal beaches).

Original languageEnglish
Article number163235
Number of pages10
JournalScience of The Total Environment
Early online date7 Apr 2023
Publication statusPublished - 1 Jul 2023


  • Coastal erosion
  • Particle transport
  • Piping failure
  • Sand column
  • Terzaghi's equation


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