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Ground shrinking and swelling

normal seasonal movements associated with changes in rainfall and vegetation growth changes to surface drainage and landscaping (including paving) longterm subsidence, as a persistent water deficit develops enhanced seasonal movement associated with the planting, severe pruning or removal of trees or hedges shortterm unseasonal movements as a result of leaks from water supply pipes or drains longterm heave as a persistent water deficit is reversed by wetting.

UK Geohazard Note
May 2012

Differential subsidence due to down-slope side of house moving on shrinkable soil. Image Chris Page.

What are the consequences of it occurring?

Damage to buildings may occur when the volume change of the soil, due to shrinking or swelling, is unevenly distributed beneath the foundations. For

What is a shrinkswell?
Subsidence due to shrink-swell clays is ground movement caused by clay soils that swell, and thus increase in volume, when they get wet and shrink when they get dry.

Shrinkage, also referred to as ground shrinkage, is a form of subsidence caused by the lowering or displacement of the ground, which can be triggered by man-made disturbances, a change in drainage patterns, heavy rain or by water abstraction. Swelling, or expansive, soils increase in volume when they get wet and can cause uplift, or heave.

Why does shrinkswell occur?

Shrinkswell occurs as a result of changes in the moisture content of clay-rich soils. This is reflected in a change in volume of the ground through shrinking or swelling. Swelling pressures can cause heaving, or lifting, of structures whilst shrinkage can cause differential settlement.

The amount by which the ground can shrink and/ or swell is determined by the water content in the nearsurface and the type of clay. Fine-grained clayrich soils can absorb large quantities of water after rainfall, becoming sticky and heavy. Conversely, they can also become very hard when dry, resulting in shrinking and cracking of the ground. This hardening and softening, with associated volume change, is known as shrink-swell. This can be a natural seasonal occurrence or one enhanced by a range of factors, including:

Shrink-swell can cause damage to buildings and infrastructure and is a major concern for the insurance industry. BGS maintains a National Geotechnical Properties Database, which is continually updated and the GeoSure National Ground Stability Data, which provides geological information about potential ground movement or subsidence, including the GeoSure shrinkswell dataset.

UK Geohazard Note
example, if there is a difference in water content in the ground beneath a building, swelling pressures can cause a wall to lift; often called heave. This can happen at the corners or towards the centre of a building.

May 2012

UK Examples
In the UK, the effects of shrinking and swelling were first recognised by geotechnical specialists following the dry summer of 1947; since then the cost of damage due to shrinking and swelling clay soils has risen dramatically. After the drought of 197576 insurance claims came to over 50 million. In 1991, after the preceding drought, claims peaked at over 500 million. Towns and cities built on clay-rich soils most susceptible to shrinkswell behaviour are found mainly in the south-east of the country. Here, many of the clay formations (e.g. London Clay, Oxford Clay, Gault Clay, Kimmeridge Clay) are too young to have been changed into stronger mudstones, leaving them still able to absorb and lose moisture.

Cracks in Gault Clay, Mundays Hill Quarry, Leighton Buzzard. Image NERC. 2006). The Association of British Insurers has estimated that the average cost of shrinkswell related subsidence to the insurance industry stands at over 400 million per year (Driscoll and Crilly, 2000).

Clay rocks elsewhere in the country are older and have been compacted and hardened by deep burial and are less able to absorb water. Some shrink-swell prone clays (e.g. around The Wash and under the Lancashire Plain) are deeply buried beneath other (superficial) soils that are not susceptible to shrinkswell behaviour. However, some superficial deposits such as alluvium, peat and laminated clays can also be susceptible to soil subsidence and heave (e.g. in the Vale of York and the Cheshire Basin).

Scientific detail

Monitoring and measurement

The main factors chosen as relevant to the determination of shrinkswell and the ability to assess it on a national basis are: Thickness and type of superficial deposits

Volume change potential (VCP) of bedrock and superficial deposits

What is the cost to the UK economy?

Shrinking and swelling of the ground (often reported as subsidence) is one of the most damaging geohazards in the UK today costing the economy an estimated 3 billion over the past 10 years (ABI,

Variation in till (superficial deposits laid down by the direct action of glacial ice) The selection of those factors accord with the assessment methodologies outlined by the Building Research Establishment (BRE 1993).

A meaningful assessment of the shrinkswell potential of the UK requires a considerable amount of

UK Geohazard Note
high-quality, consistent and well distributed spatial data. The BGS National Geotechnical Properties Database contains a large amount of index test data. At the time of writing, the database contained data from more than 80000 boreholes, comprising nearly 320000 geotechnical samples, with 100000 containing relevant plasticity data, which is used to calculate the VCP. recognised that future climate change is one of the biggest problems that the UK faces and, if current predictions are correct, we can expect hotter, drier summers in the south-east of England and milder, wetter winters, in the rest of the UK (Jones, 2004).

May 2012

How is the hazard characterised?

GeoSure national datasets provide geological information about potential ground movement or subsidence that can help planning decisions.

The BGS has created a dataset which is based on the properties of both the bedrock and the superficial deposits. Bedrock comprises geological deposits that are older then 2.6 million years, often found at the surface as well as below superficial deposits. Superficial deposits are unconsolidated geological deposits younger than 2.6 million years. They are found at the surface overlying bedrock deposits. Using the properties of both the bedrock and superficial deposits generates a map of shrinkswell susceptible areas with a rating for the potential for volume change in soils. The classification system used in the BGS GeoSure shrinkswell hazards maps is based upon that outlined by the BRE (1993), which provides a definition for the volume change potential for fine-grained rocks and soils, based upon a modified plasticity index.

Damage caused by shrinkage of London Clay deposits beneath a building. Image Peter Kelsey and Partners.

Other considerations when characterising the hazard

In addition to the shrink-swell properties of the bedrock being classified, consideration is also given to the thickness and variation of superficial deposits including variations in the type of glacial till. All of these factors have been considered when producing the GeoSure shrinkswell hazard maps.

The change in the amount and distribution of rainfall, as a result of climate change, will lead to a significant increase in the damage done by the shrinking and swelling behaviour of these clay soils. The Association of British Insurers predicts that subsidence (downward movement of the ground surface) claims will reach 600 million a year by 2050 and the AA, which monitors over 40 different home insurers, is predicting that the average home insurance premium will rise significantly in the years ahead (Jones, 2004).

Scenarios for future events

Partnerships and links

Indications are that future climate change will have an increasingly adverse effect on shrinkswell soils and, therefore, on the damage caused to homes, buildings and roads. The Government has

British Research Establishment ( National House-Building Council (www.nhbc.

UK Geohazard Note
Subsidence Forum ( Royal Institute of Chartered Surveyors (


3. Driscoll, R and Crilly, M. 2000. Subsidence damage to domestic buildings. Lessons learned and questions asked. Building Research Establishment, London. 4. Jones, L D. 2004. Cracking open the property market. Planet Earth, Autumn 2004, pp3031. NERC, UK.

May 2012

1. Association of British Insurers. 2006. SubsidenceDealing with the problem [online]. [Cited 3rd August, 2006]. Available from

2. BRE. 1993. Low-rise buildings on shrinkable clay soils: BRE Digest, Vols. 240, 241 and 242. CRC, London.

5. Jones, L D, and Terrington R. 2011. Modelling volume change potential in the London Clay. Quarterly Journal of Engineering Geology and Hydrogeology, 44, 115.

Interpolated volume change potential, values for the London Clay. Jones and Terrington, 2011.

Further information
Contact the BGS Shallow Geohazards team by: Email Telephone 0115 9363143

BGS GeoSure website: BGS shrinkswell website: shrinking_and_swelling_clays.html
British Geological Survey NERC 2012