Minnesota Department of Transportation

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Road Research

NRRA Geotechnical Team Project

Environmental Impacts on the Performance of Pavement Foundation Layers - Phase I

Contract: 1035211
Status: Complete
Project Start Date: December 9, 2019
Project End Date: August 2021

Final research page


Seasonal freeze-thaw weakening and changes in saturation level from environmental fluctuations have a significant effect on pavement foundation performance. The seasonal freeze-thaw cycles cause extensive damage to the pavement from frost-related problems such as frost heave, frost boils, thaw weakening, rutting, and degradation of mechanical properties. Changes in saturation level of pavement foundation geomaterials during freeze-thaw cycles can influence the performance of pavement foundation layers significantly. It is crucial to monitor the changes in water content, temperature, and matric suction of base materials and subgrade soils to be able to predict the frost depth, freezing and thawing times and mechanical property changes.

This project has two main goals: (1) develop a model to predict the maximum/minimum frozen soil depths, freezing and thawing duration via use of standard climate data that includes precipitation, shortwave radiation, and air temperature and (2) develop a model to predict the performance of pavements that are subjected to severe freeze-thaw cycles.

During this phase (Phase I), the research team will extract the environmental data and pavement performance data (e.g. FWD, rutting) collected by MnROAD test facility over the years and determine whether it is necessary to build new test sections that is installed with finer environmental sensors to improve the reliability of a thermo-hydro-mechanic model to predict the pavement performance, freeze-thaw cycle numbers, freeze time and thaw time, and frost depth and be used for pavement analyses.

The research team will investigate several different software programs with capabilities for modeling heat flow and moisture transport. Modeling analyses will be conducted both in 1-D and 2-D to determine whether results are impacted significantly at different dimension conditions. Then, the research team will provide recommendation whether finer environmental sensor installation and monitoring is required considering sensor location, e.g., installation at the two edges, center and between edges and center of the roadway cross-section and different depths. For instance, sensors will be placed in every 6 inches in depth up to 10 ft. Thus, as a result, the lateral and vertical variations of these environmental data will be monitored and tied to the elastic modulus data.


The proposed study will help optimize the use of recycled materials and LSSB in pavement systems and lead to more consistent specifications between agencies. Other benefits the state will receive from the results and conclusions of this research include: (1) virgin material cost savings from the use of recycled materials; (2) longer pavement service life, resulting in reduced life cycle costs; and (3) conservation of natural resources resulting in reduced environmental impacts. The outcome of this research in the form of a pavement design specification could be immediately implemented by the department of transportations (DOTs) of states participating in National Road Research Alliance (NRRA).

The long-term benefits of the proposed project will be to improve the quality, longevity, and state of good repair of roadways, which constitute a vital component of the nation's infrastructure. The field monitoring data will produce a better understanding of the evolution of freezing and thawing soil zones beneath roadways. The computational models developed in this study will help DOTs advance towards predicting the depth and duration of soil freezing/thawing and stress resistance. As a result, maintenance costs associated with repairing traffic-related damage to thawing roads can be reduced.

With further research, the modeling analyses will determine whether more detailed Phase II study needs to be conducted. It is expected that with more detailed phase study in the future the computational models developed in this phase could be incorporated into the pavement Mechanistic Empirical Pavement Design Guide (MEPDG) for improved climate modeling and prediction of freeze-thaw related damage to ACC and PCC pavements.

Research methodology

The overall research methodology is proposed by a highly-qualified team with expertise in pavement systems and geotechnical engineering at Iowa State University (ISU) and the Geoengineering Consultant, LLC. The methodology primarily involves collecting field data and conducting modeling to predict frost depth, freeze/thaw periods and cycles, and pavement stresses under these conditions. Based on the results of this study it will be determined whether more detailed environmental sensor installation and monitoring is required to develop a more reliable model.

The proposed team has been working on MnDOT data for years and very familiar with the process. This phase of the project contains four tasks: (1) initial memorandum on expected research benefits and potential implementation steps, (2) collection of field data from MnDOT, (3) modeling, and (4) final report.


Task 1: Initial memorandum on expected research benefits and potential implementation steps

During the proposal phase and the development of the work plan, key benefits were selected to clearly define the benefits the state will receive from the results and conclusions of this research. This task will provide an initial assessment of research benefits, a proposed methodology, and potential implementation steps.

  • Scheduled Date for Task Final Approval: October 30, 2019
  • Deliverable: A memorandum providing initial estimates of expected research benefits, documentation of the methodology, and potential implementation steps.

Task 2: Field data collection

Under this task, the research team will collect and analyze the moisture content, temperature, and matric suction potential (if available) data. The degree of saturation level (moisture content) and temperature are the most influential parameters on the stiffness and strength of pavement performances. Dr. Cetin and Dr. Edil have worked on the analyses of the similar data from the 2008 MnDOT project sites. The database of MnROAD will be scanned through in detail to extract any available and useful data to be used during modelling analyses. In addition, Dr. Cetin is currently leading a project “TPF5-(341) - Determining Pavement Design Criteria for Recycled Aggregate Base and Large Stone Subbase” funded by NRRA which also collects similar data. The data that has been collected through this project will also be used during modeling analyses.

  • Scheduled Date for Task Final Approval: October 31, 2020
  • Deliverable: An interim report (pdf) and webinar

Task 3: Modelling analyses

Under this task, a data driven model will be developed and run over a range of conditions, calibrated through adjustments to the model parameters (e.g. moisture, matric suction, temperature). The goal of this task will be to develop a data driven forecasting model that will allow frost depth and freeze/thaw timing to be predicted based on input soil, pavement base layer, and weather data.

Using the measured data (e.g. moisture, temperature, matric suction (if available)) as input, the project team will then begin developing and calibrating preliminary data driven models for predicting frost depths and freeze/thaw durations/cycles.

Task 4: Final report

During this task, the approved report will be processed by MnDOT’s contract editors. Research team is very familiar with submitting final reports for MnDOT projects and they will ensure the report is in the correct format and meets all the requirements.

Project team

Principal Investigator: Bora Cetin, Assistant Professor, Michigan State University, cetinbor@msu.edu
Technical Liaison: Tim Andersen, Minnesota Department of Transportation, timothy.lee.andersen@state.mn.us
Project Technical Advisory Panel (TAP)

  • Terry Beaudry, MnDOT
  • Jeff Horsfall, WisDOT
  • Jeff Meek, MnDOT
  • Matt Oman, Mathy Construction
  • Andrew Stolba, Illinois DOT
  • Raul Velasquez, MnDOT

Related materials

Final report

Final Report (pdf), August 2021