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Abutment scour
Bridge scour is the removal of sediment such as sand and rocks from around bridge abutments or piers. Scour, caused by swiftly moving water, can scoop out scour holes, compromising the integrity of the bridge.

Bridge scour is one of the three main causes of bridge failure. It has been estimated that 60% of all bridge failures result from scour and other hydraulic related causes. It is the most common cause of highway bridge failure in the United Statesmarker, where 46 of 86 major bridge failures resulted from scour near piers from 1961 to 1976.

Areas affected by scour

Water normally flows faster around piers and abutments making them susceptible to local scour. At bridge openings, contraction scour can occur when water accelerates as it flows through an opening that is narrower than the channel upstream from the bridge. Degradation scour occurs both upstream and downstream from a bridge over large areas. Over long periods of time, this can result in lowering of the stream bed.


Stream channel instability resulting in river erosion and changing angles-of-attack can contribute to bridge scour. Debris can also have a substantial impact on bridge scour in several ways. A build-up of material can reduce the size of the waterway under a bridge causing contraction scour in the channel. A build-up of debris on the abutment can increase the obstruction area and increase local scour. Debris can deflect the water flow, changing the angle of attack, increasing local scour. Debris might also shift the entire channel around the bridge causing increased water flow and scour in another location.

During flooding, although the foundations of a bridge might not suffer damage, the fill behind abutments may scour. This type of damage typically occurs with single-span bridges with vertical wall abutments.

Bridge examination

The examination process is normally conducted by hydrologists and hydrologic technicians, and involves a review of historical engineering information about the bridge, followed by a visual inspection. Information is recorded about the type of rock or sediment carried by the river, and the angle at which the river flows toward and away from the bridge. The area under the bridge is also inspected for holes and other evidence of scour.


Riprap remains the most common countermeasure used to prevent scour at bridge abutments. A number of physical additions to the abutments of bridges can help prevent scour, such as the installation of gabions and stone pitching upstream from the foundation. The addition of sheet piles or interlocking prefabricated concrete blocks can also offer protection.

Trapezoidal-shaped channels through a bridge can significantly decrease local scour depths compared to vertical wall abutments, as they provide a smoother transition through a bridge opening. This eliminates abrupt corners that cause turbulent areas. Spur dikes, barbs, groynes, and vanes are river training structures that change stream hydraulics to mitigate undesirable erosion or deposits. They are usually used on unstable stream channels to help redirect stream flow to more desirable locations through the bridge. The insertion of piles or deeper footings is also used to help strengthen bridges.

Lacey's formula

According to Lacey's formula, the width of a natural channel at bank-full flow is proportional to the root of the discharge.

To determine scouring depth:
d = 0.473 \left( Q / f \right)^{\frac{1}{3}}

d = normal depth of scouring below HFL
Q = discharge (in m3/s)
f = Lacey's silt factor, which is a function of bed material
:f =1.76 \times \sqrt \text{particle size}

See also


Further reading

  • Boorstin, Robert O. (1987). Bridge Collapses on the Thruway, Trapping Vehicles, Volume CXXXVI, No. 47,101, The New York Times, April 6, 1987.

  • Huber, Frank. (1991). “Update: Bridge Scour.” Civil Engineering, ASCE, Vol. 61, No. 9, pp 62-63, September 1991.

  • Levy, Matthys and Salvadori, Mario (1992). Why Buildings Fall Down. W.W. Norton and Company, New York, New York.
  • National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB). (1988). “Collapse of New York Thruway (1-90) Bridge over the Schoharie Creek, near Amsterdam, New York, April 5, 1987.” Highway Accident Report: NTSB/HAR-88/02, Washington, D.C.

  • Springer Netherlands. International Journal of Fracture, Volume 51, Number 1 September, 1991. "The collapse of the Schoharie Creek Bridge: a case study in concrete fracture mechanics"

  • Palmer, R., and Turkiyyah, G. (1999). “CAESAR: An Expert System for Evaluation of Scour and Stream Stability.” National Cooperative Highway Research Program (NCHRP) Report 426, Washington D. C.

  • Shepherd, Robin and Frost, J. David (1995). Failures in Civil Engineering: Structural, Foundation and Geoenvironmental Case Studies. American Society of Civil Engineers, New York, New York.

  • Thornton, C. H., Tomasetti, R. L., and Joseph, L. M. (1988). “Lessons From Schoharie Creek,” Civil Engineering, Vol. 58, No.5, pp. 46-49, May 1988.

  • Thornton-Tomasetti, P. C. (1987) “Overview Report Investigation of the New York State Thruway Schoharie Creek Bridge Collapse.” Prepared for: New York State Disaster Preparedness Commission, December 1987.

  • Wiss, Janney, Elstner Associates, Inc., and Mueser Rutledge Consulting Engineers (1987) “Collapse of Thruway Bridge at Schoharie Creek,” Final Report, Prepared for: New York State Thruway Authority, November 1987.

  • Richardson, E.V., and S.R. Davis. 1995. "Evaluating Scour at Bridges, Third Edition.", US Department of Transportation, Publication No FHWA-IP-90-017.

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