In the past, people readily used materials with unknown properties. Sure, they used some durability tests for different materials, but these usually ended with approximate results. Unfortunately, a lot of times this ended in disaster. Furthermore, some materials, although durable and easy to mold, tend to become toxic over the course of the years. In the past, however, this was something that science had no way of determining due to a lack of adequate tools for the job. Finally, there are also hidden properties of materials, such as different behavior under certain climate conditions or external pressure.
All of these problems are today closely being monitored through civil engineering. What direction will this take in the next five, ten or twenty years? Who knows. What we can do, however, is make an educated guess based on the information we currently have. Here are some estimations.
1. The Problem of Landslides:
One of the main tasks of geotechnics in today’s civil engineering lies in determining the stability of the ground on which residential buildings are constructed. You see, geotechnics is a tricky trade, requiring trained experts and high-tech tools, which are not always affordable for many countries.
Unfortunately, this is evident by taking a look at the death toll caused by landslides all across the world. According to one research study in North America, the number of landslide fatalities per year amounts to about 0.01 per million people.(1) In Europe, this number is similar at about 0.03. In Australia, this number is somewhat higher at about 0.17, but it is still far from South America at 7.78, or Central America at 10.47. What we see from this is the importance of proper terrain survey prior to laying down foundations. Something that will hopefully play a bigger role in the future across the world and perhaps even save thousands of lives.
2. A Shift Towards Sustainability:
Another issue of great importance for both today’s and future geotechnics is the issue of sustainability. You see, the tools are not the only thing that changes over the course of years, but our awareness regarding the pollution of our world, as well. With this in mind, the hazard assessments and its “tolerable” levels are today, much different than they used to be in the past. Also, the climate change effects rising sea levels, which further increases the amount of land that is not well suited for construction.
Furthermore, as the number of resources on our planet dwindles drastically, unique groundwater engineering is becoming more and more important.(2) This helps prospectors both control and protect these much-needed groundwater resources, which is today more significant than it has ever been.
3. A Network of Knowledge:
The next great advantage that 2017 engineers have is the hyper-connected world. This helps geo-organizations across the globe connect with each other, gain better access to wider audiences and in this way, spread awareness about some of the most important problems in the field. These organizations invest more and more in their websites and social media marketing, which further helps their cause. As for the most social ones, the absolute champion is Fugro, that has well over 100,000 followers, while the first ten on the list boasts over 10,000 followers on social networks.(3)
4. Safety and Reliability:
There are some things that never change like concepts of reliability and safety since they are the most important thing for every geotechnical engineer out there. Safety is one of the key aspects in the field of geotechnical engineering and is there to determine just how safe it is to build on a current location or work with a material in question. This is a complex mathematical formula consisting of major factors like external pressure and durability, but also some minor ones like poor water pressure. When you come to think about it, the abovementioned issue of sustainability fits the formula, as well. The greatest difference being the fact that sustainability is currently looking at the bigger picture.
5. Risk Management:
In the end, it is more than clear that geotechnics will continue to be primarily concerned with the idea of risk management. A geotechnical engineer needs to take things like the terrain stability (existing and potential landslides), element vulnerability and most importantly, consequences of failure. Based on this, they need to conduct an objective risk assessment and say whether the risk is acceptable/tolerable or not. No matter how simple this may sound, it is everything but.
One thing that is perfectly clear to everyone is the fact that the conditions on our planet are rapidly changing. Climate shift and tectonic turmoil we experienced in the previous decades stand as undeniable proof. Because of this, it currently seems as if geotechnical engineering is our best and only shot at truly understanding this planet and its natural resources before it is too late. The cost of ignoring this is simply too high.