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Willow Creek Dam in Oregon, a roller-compacted concrete gravity dam

A gravity dam is a dam constructed from concrete or stone masonry and designed to hold back water by primarily using the weight of the material alone to resist the horizontal pressure of water pushing against it. Gravity dams are designed so that each section of the dam is stable and independent of any other dam section.[1][2]



Gravity dams are useful for a number of reasons. During the winter and spring, gravity dams are used to help in controlling the flow of melting snow in a river. During the summer, they are used as water storage to help provide water year long to the neighboring land. The reason to use a gravity dam is because, without them, the snow and rain from the cold months would build up and eventually melt. This would create a devastating quake of destruction as it flows downhill either to another lake or the ocean. Once all the snow has melted and the water has reached the ocean, the towns and cities between the top of the mountain and a couple miles away from the ocean are left with flooded and destroyed properties. Once the summer comes around, these cities are running short on water. A gravity dam helps in capturing the melted snow and rain in a large area containing the water for use through the entire year and as it overflows, it slowly drains over the dam allowing controlled soft flow of the water preventing any destruction down stream.


Gravity dams generally require stiff rock foundations of high bearing strength (slightly weathered to fresh); although they have been built on soil foundations in rare cases. The bearing strength of the foundation limits the allowable position of the resultant which influences the overall stability. Also, the stiff nature of the gravity dam structure is unforgiving to differential foundation settlement; which can induce cracking of the dam structure.

Gravity dams provide some advantages over embankment dams. The main advantage being that they can tolerate minor over-topping flows as the concrete is resistant to scouring. Large over-topping flows are still a problem, as they can scour the foundations if not accounted for in the design. A disadvantage of gravity dams is that due to their large footprint, they are susceptible to uplift pressures which act as a de-stabilising force. Uplift pressures (buoyancy) can be reduced by internal and foundation drainage systems which reduces the pressures.

During construction, the setting concrete produces an exothermic reaction. This heat expands the plastic concrete and can take up to several decades to cool. When cooling, the concrete is in a stiff state and is susceptible to cracking. It is the designer's task to ensure this does not occur.


Gravity dams are built by first cutting away a large part of the land in one section of a river allowing water to fill the space and be stored. Once the land has been cut away, the soil has to be tested to make sure it can support the weight of the dam and the water. It is important to make sure the soil will not erode over time which will allow the water to cut a way around or under the dam. Sometimes the soil is sufficient to achieve these goals; however, other times certain conditioning need to be done by adding support rocks which will bolster the weight of the dam and water. There are three different test that can be done to determine the foundations support strength:  Westergaard approach, Eulerian approach, and Lagrangian approach.[3] Once the foundation is appropriate to build on, construction of the dam can begin. Usually gravity dams are built out of a strong material such as concrete or stone blocks, and are built into a triangular shape to provide the most support.[4]


The most common classification of gravity dams is by the materials composing the structure:

Composite dams are a combination of concrete and embankment dams.[citation needed] Construction materials of composite dams are the same used for concrete and embankment dams.

Gravity dams can be classified by plan (shape):

Gravity dams can be classified with respect to their structural height:

  • Low, up to 100 feet.
  • Medium high, between 100 and 300 feet.
  • High, over 300 feet.

Earthquakes and ecosystemsEdit

Gravity dams are built to withstand some of the strongest earthquakes. Even though, the foundation of gravity dams are built to support the weight of the dam and all the water, it is quite flexible in that it absorbs a large amount of energy and sends it in the earth's crust. It needs to be able to absorb the energy from an earthquake because, if the dam were to break, it would send a mass amount of water rushing down stream and destroying everything in its way. Earthquakes are the biggest danger to gravity dams and that is why, every year and after every major earthquake, they must be tested for cracks, durability, and strength. Although, gravity dams are expected to last anywhere 50–150 years, they need to be maintained and regularly replaced.[6]

Another problem with gravity dams deal with ecosystems. Because the flow and amount of water changes when a dam is built, it generally has an impact on the area of the dam and everything afterwards. If water that normally flows two weeks out of the year in an area is now flowing constantly, new life is going to start living and growing there. Similarly, if you cut off water to somewhere that has water flow year round, things are going to start dying. Many environmentalist have problems with dams because of their effects on the environment.[7]

Effect on societyEdit

The control of fresh water flow was essential to the settlement forming our first civilizations and substantially shaping societal evolution.[8] Water is life; therefore, whoever controls water, has an immense amount of power. If you control water, you can grow more food. More food and a bountiful supply of water means more population growth. More population means more minds working together to advance society and knowledge of the world. Without water, life can not survive. Although, the Earth is mostly covered in water, most of the mainlands are not, and not all of the water that is on the mainland can be used.


  1. ^ Design of Gravity Dams, Bureau of Reclamation, 1976
  2. ^ Design of Small Dams, Bureau of Reclamation, 1987
  3. ^ Design of gravity dams: Design manual for concrete gravity dams. Denver, CO: US Dept. of the Interior. 1976.
  4. ^ KHOSRAVI, S (2015). Design and Modal Analysis of Gravity Dams by Ansys Parametric Design Language. Walailak Journal of Science & Technology.
  5. ^ Gravity Dam Design, US Army Corps of Engineers, EM 1110-2-2200, June 1995
  6. ^ Lucian, G (1986). Earthquake analysis and response of concrete gravity dams. US Army Corps of Engineers. ISBN 0943198070.
  7. ^ "Deep Water: The Epic Struggle Over Dams, Displaced People, and the Environment". 2006.
  8. ^ Edward, M (2013). "The hydropolitics of dams : Engineering or ecosystems?".


  • Kollgaardand, E.B.; Chadwick, W.L. (1988). Development of Dam Engineering in the United States. US Committee of the International Commission on Large Dams.
  • Dams of the United States - Pictorial display of Landmark Dams. Denver, Colorado: US Society on Dams. 2013.