Hiking Through the Norris Geyser Basin and the Risks for Your Dredge Production

Our Norris Geyser Basin hike in the Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming, USA

Smell is said to have the strongest memories. And usually it happens, that one smells a certain whiff and your mind is instantly transferred to the happy days of childhood where your grandma makes your favourite pie. So, what does it say about me, when we were hiking trails over the Norris Geyser Basin in the Yellowstone National Park, the fumes from the geysers brought me back to the soil laboratory where we bake the soils for analysing and sieve tests?

Overview of our cute little soil mechanics lab

Just like the baking process to dry soil in an oven, the sediment in the Norris Geyser Basin is heated by the hot ground water underneath. The hot water in the basin or in the sample leach silica and calcium from the grains and evaporation transfers those scents to your nose. Also, as the silica and calcium reach the surface, they cool down and get deposited on the outside. In the oven, the calcium will form some white spots and there is a thin crust of just a few grains thick. In the Norris Geyser Basin everything turns white and the crust is much thicker. Still, the crust is relatively brittle and accidents do happen when people stray from the indicated trail and sink through the crust and get cooked in the underground steam1.

Warning: Dangerous Ground (Credit: US National Parks Service)

Calcium cemented sand can sometimes be found in a dredging project too. There it is of some nuisance, as it makes soil reports unreliable and causes some unpredicted difficulties for the operation. The calcium glues the grains together and the grain size appears to be bigger. As smaller grains are more effected, the real particle size distribution might be much wider than anticipated. So, thorough shaking and pounding of the sample is important before sieving.

Effect of calcium bonds on apparent and actual particle size distribution

If you only had a survey for the actual or relative density, you may have estimated, that there is rather course material in an open (loose) structure. During dredging, you might find the bank is not free flowing, but comes down in chunks. You might even run into problems of a bank collapse. On the other side of the pipe line, the bonds will have been broken up by the cutter and the dredge pump. The reclamation area is surprisingly filled with lots of fines in the Particle Size Distribution. And as the fines clog the pores between the bigger particles, they hinder the drainage of the reclaimed land2, you may have problems getting the required relative density and bearing capacity. Bank collapses and an insubordinate reclamation area are better averted. Check the local geology and be vigilant on the soil samples for calcium cementation.

The Norris Geyser Basin in Yellowstone is a very special geological place, with cementation due to hydrothermal activity. However, cemented sand and its descendent, sandstone can be found anywhere. Normally we would encounter cemented sand from a marine and biological origin. e.g. Deltas, Beach and shore face sands, Tidal flats, Offshore bars and sand waves, Storm deposits, Submarine channels and fans3. Pretty much everywhere, where there is dredging. You have been warned…

Example of cemented sand forming sediment normally encountered in dredging (Credit: Wikipedia)


  1. Hydrothermal Safety, Yellowstone NPS
  2. Hydraulic conductivity: estimation from grain size, Wikipedia
  3. Sandstone, Wikipedia

See also


Lessons in Camping: Basic Soil Investigation

Pitching our tent at Bad Bear Campground, Idaho, USA

Oh the horror! An old salt like me had to go camping during our summer holiday. Our daughter had her birthday during our road trip in the USA and she wanted to celebrate it by camping in the woods. Complying to her wishes we pitched a tent and roasted marshmallows. Meanwhile my mind was frantically searching for familiar clues to connect to my maritime heritage. Hammering down the tent pegs, it dawned to me: putting up a tent is basically a simple Standard Penetration Test.

Standard Penetration Test explanation infographic

Standard Penetration Test is one of the easiest soil investigations you could do1. All you need is a pipe and a hammer. You count the number of blows to hammer the pipe down and you have an indication of the effort it takes to cut the soil. This method completely ignores sophisticated parameters as e.g. undrained shear strength, porosity or internal friction angle. It is very crude in its results. On the other hand, the basic principle of driving the pipe into the ground is very similar to the cutting action of the pick points on a cutter. As such, it is a very good indicator for the performance of a cutter head. This is also the reason, why for initial discussions about the performance of a CSD, the SPT is a good starting point to ask the client. He might have a report like this already available, or he can easily perform the tests. Also ‘Sandy’ accepts SPT values for an indication of the soil quality2.

Sandy’s soil parameter input page

Be aware, that SPT’s are often not very deep. Of course, a full soil investigation report with a Cone Penetration Test is much more valuable. We can always translate the results from a CPT report into a SPT value. But the SPT information is not covering all the parameters to translate this to a CPT. Sometimes even an SPT report fails. And then it might be useful to discuss with the client on a qualitative level about the soil condition. Usually people have actually touched the soil, or at least can paint a mental picture of the soil conditions and these criteria might help to use the same descriptive language.

Standardised qualitative description

Hammering a rod into the soil is a relative cheap and quick method to collect the soil consistency. It can be performed everywhere, anytime, under most conditions. That is why it was also selected for the soil investigation on one of the most remote locations imaginable. Although it is still on my wish list of dream destinations, the prohibitive price tag of the ticket will prevent it for me to pitch up my tent over there. I just have to revel in the camping adventures of Neil and Buzz.

Astronaut Edwin Aldrin takes a core-tube sample3 (Credit: NASA)


  1. ASTM: Standard Test Method for Standard Penetration Test
  2. Sandy, Dredge Finder
  3. Astronaut Edwin Aldrin takes a core-tube sample

See also

Painted Hills, how to unveil the sediment layers below the surface

Painted Hills, Oregon, USA

Last year we had an extended holiday. We wanted to observe the solar eclipse, but we took the opportunity to sail and drive across the United States. Sure, the eclipse was certainly one of the most impressive events. But the above picture was haunting my mind throughout my vacation. Is it familiar to anyone? Is there anyone an avid follower of ‘Who is the Mole’? Yes, these are the Painted Hills. In season 17 part 8, this is where Sanne Wallis de Vries mixed up the alphabet and Diederik Jekel had to leave the show. As our plans were already to visit the state of Oregon, we decided to see the location. Most striking are the coloured bands of sediment. Each colour represents a different geological age. After erosion, the layers became exposed. Usually, these sediment layers are covered and submerged, invisible to the dredge contractor or operator.

Nothing to see here

However, these layers can be made visible by performing a soil investigation. The bottom is probed with a Cone Penetration Test or CPT. It measures two parameters: the undrained shear strength and the cohesion. The shear strength can be measured by pushing a cone through the soil. The cohesion by pulling a sleeve through the hole the cone just created. This way the parameters are uncoupled. Imagine being able to identify the resistance of a hull separated in form friction and skin friction!

Sometimes also other measurements can be performed on the same sensor: water pressure, acidity, conductivity, light reflection; all attributing to a better understanding of what is beneath the surface.

Infographic on CPT

The values for shear strength, cohesion and optional other parameters can be plotted in the same diagram against the penetration depth. Correlating the parameters can reveal what type of layers are there. Very easily clay and sand can be identified. Also gravel layers are recognised. Stones and debris are sometimes hidden as soundings that were aborted. Keep an eye out for signs like these, as they have a major impact on your project. The more soundings available, the better the project estimation. There is a PIANC guideline for the number of soundings for the area1. Anything less is meaningless.

Example of a sounding diagram

A soil investigation report comprises a number of these diagrams and possibly also core samples for establishing a particle size diagram. If the client attaches such a thorough soil investigation report, we can work on it to select the best dredging equipment for the project and advise on an optimal working method.
The data of the Cone Penetration Tests can be used also as input for survey programs like Navguard. e.g. If a certain layer has to be removed, the depth of that layer can be presented to the operator as the design depth. So, NavGuard can be an excellent tool to dredge exactly what is needed, without extra work and costs. Certainly an option that will pay back quickly.

Screenshot of NavGuard survey program


  1. PIANC, Site investigation requirements for dredging works

See also