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Scott Thompson

Mrs. Meggison

Physics Honors

15 April 2008

The Physics of Bridges

Bridges are an integral part of everyday life. From bridges spanning vast bodies of water

to highway overpasses and logs crossing a small ditch, bridges are essential to our routines,

lifestyles and economies. However, what seems to be a relatively simple structure is a careful

balancing act between many different forces and unforeseen variables.

The physics of bridges revolves around the balance of forces. The structure must be able

to support the bridge's dead weight and the weight of the load it carries such as people and

vehicles. Another key force acting upon a bridge is its environment and the weather affecting it

(“bridge”).

Bridges rely heavily upon Newton’s three laws of motion. Newton’s first law of motion

states that an object in motion will remain in motion and an object at rest will remain at rest as

long as the net force is zero. Since bridges are predominately stationary, they must adhere to

having a net force of zero (Kwong).

To mathematically understand Newton’s first law, his second law is necessary. Newton’s

second law states that a force is equal to its mass multiplied by its acceleration. Since bridges do

not have horizontal motion, their acceleration is vertical, or the force of gravity.

Newton’s third law counteracts the downward pull of gravity. The law states that for

every action there is an opposite and equal reaction. A bridge’s downward force is counteracted

by the normal force of the earth and the bridge’s supports. Newton’s three laws are instrumental
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to understanding how a bridge functions; however, they are only part of a larger scheme

(Morrissey).

Bridges are intended to carry loads of people and traffic. This is commonly known as a

live load while a bridge’s weight is known as its dead load. These loads cause two other forces

to occur. Tension forces occur when a bridge is expanded or “stretched.” Compression forces

are the opposite of tension forces and occur when the structure is compressed or “scrunched”

together. These two disparate forces are generally found in most bridges. For example, in a

typical highway overpass the bridge’s deck, the portion that carries the live load, experiences

both compression and tension. Under the weight of the live load the upper portion of the deck is

compressed as it bends. Meanwhile, the lower portion of the deck experiences tension as it is

stretched (Morrissey and Kwong).

It is necessary for bridges to efficiently cope with the change of forces imposed by their

live loads. This generally occurs via two different methods. Forces can be transferred from a

weak area to an area that can better cope with the increased force. Forces can also be dissipated

throughout the structure so that no one place has to cope with an excessive force (Kwong).

There are five common types of bridge design: girder, arch, truss, suspension, and cable-

stay. Each of these five types have their advantages and disadvantages. The most basic, and

most common in eastern North Carolina, is the girder bridge. (Scott Thompson, 2008)

Common examples of such bridges are highway overpasses which are generally classified as a

simple girder bridge because they only have two supports. If a girder bridge has more than two

supports it is classified as being continuous. Girder bridges experience tension in the lower

portion of their decks and compression in the upper portion (“bridge”).


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Although not as widely used as in the past, arch bridges, and any type of arch, are

excellent ways to efficiently dissipate weight. Compression is the only force present in an arch

and a secure foundation for the bridge is absolutely necessary for its stability (“bridge”). Such

bridges cannot withstand horizontal motion. Arch bridges are best suited for spanning rivers and

valleys (“Matsuo Bridge - Bridges”).

Truss bridges rely upon triangles in their design to efficiently transfer their loads. Each

relatively weak triangle “cooperates” with the other triangles and together they become very

strong. The load to be carried determines how a truss bridge bridge is designed. Trusses are

popular because they can carry very heavy loads while using a small amount of materials in their

construction. Truss bridges use both compression and tension forces to balance their loads. The

bridge’s design is similar to a girder bridge; however, the triangular sections of a truss help to

distribute its load. Generally the deck of a truss bridge and its diagonal crossbars are under

tension. Meanwhile the upper part of the truss and its vertical connectors to the base are under

compression. If the length of the bridge requires supports they are also under compression

(“Matsuo Bridge - Bridges” and “bridges”).

Suspension bridges are somewhat unique in the fact that they can span large distances

and use very few supports. This is beneficial in areas where deep waters prevent numerous

supports. It also is an advantage in areas with a large amount of shipping traffic. A suspension

bridge’s deck is hung from a series of lesser support cables, which are under tension, hung from

two larger main cables that run the length of the entire of the bridge which are also under

tension. Usually the bridge has at least two support towers, which are under compression, that

the main cables are “draped” over. At the ends of the bridge the main cables are anchored to

maintain their tension (“bridge”).


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Cable-stay bridges are similar to a suspension bridge in that they are supported from

above by cables which then connect to support towers. However, cable-stay bridges are much

more complex and the lesser support cables connect directly to the main tower, not to a main

cable that attaches to the towers. The support cables are under tension while both the support

towers and road deck are under compression (“bridge” and “Matsuo Bridge - Bridges”). Also,

such bridges are only as strong as their weakest deck segment. Each section within the bridge’s

span is compressed against neighboring deck segments. If one of these sections fails the entire

bridge’s tension and compression balance will be disrupted.

Not only do bridge designers have to plan for the expected forces on a bridge such as

dead and live loads, they must also consider outside forces such as weather, fatigue and a

bridge’s enemy—resonance. The freak, but powerful, acts of mother nature can be the most

challenging for a bridge designer. As bridges transverse large bodies of water they are

susceptible to the full brunt of powerful storms such as hurricanes, typhoons, and nor’easters. In

many areas they are also vulnerable to earthquakes. External forces such as wind are mitigated

through careful attention to aerodynamics and structure weight. A heavier bridge deck helps

negate the effects of wind; however, a lighter deck will better withstand an earthquake. This

poses a special challenge to designing large scale bridges in Japan such as the record-setting

Akashi-Kaikyō suspension bridge.

Certain wind speeds can also lead to a bridge’s disaster if they cause it to resonate.

Resonance occurs when a stimulus creates a frequency that is in tune with another objects natural

frequency. The affected object will begin to resonate with increasing magnitude. In some cases,

such as the Tacoma Narrows bridge, the resonance can lead to its destruction. Today, resonance

can be mitigated by including dampeners to prevent runaway resonance throughout a bridge.


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Dampeners limit the resonance to one section of the bridge and prevent it from escalating

(Morrissey).

Bridge fatigue made an attention grabbing appearance in August 2007 with the collapse

of the I-35W bridge in Minneapolis. Its collapse has been attributed to bridge fatigue. Although

fatigue will ultimately occur in any structure, it can be mitigated through careful maintenance

and bridge design. Designers should create a bridge that equally distributes its forces through the

structure. This design method will prevent one section of a bridge from coping with an

excessive force that will lead to premature fatigue.

Newton’s three laws play an integral role in designing a bridge and explaining the forces

acting upon a bridge. Each of his three laws will be explained in the following example of a

simple highway overpass. The two supports will be placed equal distances apart to support the

1000 kg bridge. This example overpass does not have a live load.

Newton’s second law is used to determine the downward force caused by the bridge.

F=ma=mg
F=(1000)(-9.8)=-9800 N

The -9800 N force is counteracted by an upward force from the ground and bridge

supports according to Newton’s third law.

F initial on reactant=-F reactant on the initial


-9800=-(-9800)

When Newton’s second and third laws are combined, the following forces are acting

upon the highway overpass. Because the two supports are equal distances apart they equally

split the bridge’s dead weight.


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9800 N

4900 N 4900 N

Newton’s first law is also exemplified in the fact that the bridge is stationary. This is

mathematically denoted by a net force of zero when all of the forces are added together.

downward force of the bridge + the upward force of the ground and supports = net force
-9800+9800=0 N

An overpass would also experience tension and compression forces, especially under a

live load. Under such circumstances the deck slightly bends. The upper portion of the deck

would be compressed as it becomes concave. The lower portion of the deck will experience

tension as it becomes convex under the bridge’s load.

A simple girder bridge, such as a highway overpass, is the easiest way to understand the

forces acting upon a bridge. However, other types of bridges balance forces in similar, albeit

more complex, manners.

Despite their differences, all bridges, whether simple or complex, have one absolutely

necessary requirement in common: they must effectively balance both their dead load and their

live load. A failure to do so will almost ensure the bridge’s complete failure. Bridge designs
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must also consider weather and other outside influences to withstand the wrath of mother nature

and the fatigue of time.


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Works Cited

"bridge." Encyclopædia Britannica. 2008. Encyclopædia Britannica Online. 9 Apr. 2008

<http://nclive.lib.ncsu.edu:2221/eb/article-9117290>.

Kwong, Norman. “The Physics of Bridges.” 7 Apr. 2008. <http://www.physics.ubc.ca/

outreach/phys420/p420_04/norman/physics_of_bridges.ppt>.

“Matsuo Bridge - Bridges.” 6 Apr. 2008. <http://www.matsuo-bridge.co.jp/

english/bridges/basics/index.shtm>.

Matthews, Theresa. “The Physics of Bridges.” 20 Mar. 2008. <http://www.yale.edu/ynhti/

curriculum/units/2001/5/01.05.08.x.html>.

Morrissey, Michael. “How Bridges Work.” 6 Apr. 2008.

<http://www.howstuffworks.com/bridge.htm>.

Vartabedian and Nicholas Riccardi. “Minneapolis Bridge Disaster: The Physics Behind the Fall.”

Los Angeles Times 3 Aug. 2007: A20. ProQuest Newspapers. NC Live. Pettigrew

Regional Lib., Plymouth, NC. 6 Apr. 2008 <http://www.nclive.org/>.