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Heat Wave ‘Blows Up’ Highways

Thursday, June 23, 2016

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Near-record heat has overtaken much of the central part of the United States in recent weeks, and there’s one danger popping up that many might not expect: concrete pavement “blow-ups.”

Road buckle
Photos: South Dakota Highway Patrol

Highways are buckling throughout the Midwest and plains states.

AccuWeather reports that highways are buckling throughout the Midwest and Plains states: Iowa, Missouri, Nebraska, Minnesota, Wisconsin, South Dakota and Colorado. It happens most notably in concrete roads (though asphalt isn’t immune), and the current epidemic can be blamed on a couple of climatic factors.

Wet Spring, Hot Summer

The region affected had an unusually wet spring. According to climate data, Lincoln, NE, registered precipitation numbers at least an inch greater than average in both April and May, and Sioux Falls, SD, had significantly wetter than normal months of March and April.

The moisture, coupled with the sudden heat in June, is a trigger for thermal expansion, which, if expansion joints aren’t sufficient, can cause blow-ups.

Buckling road

A blow-up “usually occurs on very hot afternoons, as the maximum temperature for the day is reached, typically during afternoons with 90-degree or hotter temperatures,” according to the Nebraska Department of Roads.

"We know there's some subsurface moisture there, which doesn't help things," a South Dakota Department of Transportation official told AccuWeather. "With the quick rise in temperatures, [that] really starts to trigger that blow-up to occur."

Officials note that on hot days like the region has been having lately, pavement can reach temperatures of 130 degrees Fahrenheit.

Buckling Interstates

Interstate 90, which passes through southern Minnesota and central South Dakota, has been especially prone to buckling, officials in those states say. The South Dakota Highway Patrol has also published photos of blow-ups on I-29 near Sioux Falls.

The buckling phenomenon takes place mainly in concrete.

“Blacktop (bituminous) pavement is a more flexible material and does not usually blow up but may create a bump similar to a frost heave, especially in areas where concrete and blacktop meet,” the Minnesota state DOT explains.

Factors in Concrete Expansion

The tendency of concrete to expand and contract due to temperature changes is expressed through the material’s coefficient of thermal expansion (CTE). Concrete’s CTE is affected notably by the aggregate used in its manufacture; “concrete containing limestone aggregate has a lower CTE than concrete containing siliceous aggregate,” notes the Federal Highway Administration in a report on Portland cement concrete pavements.

Buckling road

On hot days like the region has been having lately, pavement can reach temperatures of 130 degrees Fahrenheit.

Various other factors related to the cement paste, including age, can also affect the CTE of concrete pavement, according to the FHWA.

Motorists Warned

States in the region have issued advisories for motorists, urging them to watch out for blow-ups when traveling, especially on concrete roads. They ask that drivers report blow-ups to law enforcement so that the appropriate agency can make emergency repairs.

A blow-up “usually occurs on very hot afternoons, as the maximum temperature for the day is reached, typically during afternoons with 90-degree or hotter temperatures,” according to the Nebraska Department of Roads. “A blow-up generally begins by slight spalling at the joint. The condition may either get progressively worse or the blow-up may occur instantaneously.”

While road crews continue to make fixes as blow-ups arise, thermal expansion sounds like it will continue to be on the minds of motorists throughout the Great Plains—forecasts are calling for more 90-plus-degree days coming up as the June heat wave continues.

   

Tagged categories: Asia Pacific; concrete; EMEA (Europe, Middle East and Africa); Environmental Controls; Expansion joints; Federal Highway Administration (FHWA); Latin America; North America; Roads/Highways; Weathering

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