Risks and spatial planning

For more sustainable spatial planning, BRGM develops integrated approaches to the management of natural risks, as well as the risks resulting from human activity, related to post-mining, polluted sites and soils.

The challenge

In a context of global change, regional sustainability and development planning are directly affected by natural and anthropogenic risks. Many parameters, such as technological development, multiple networks and systems, population growth and concentration in large conurbations, and climatic forcing, are increasingly exposing modern societies to risk, making them vulnerable and possibly less and less resilient. Risks are expected by the public to be identified, assessed and reduced and are addressed in government policy and the policies of industrial operators. They raise complex issues, which fall between the domains of environmental and social science. To tackle these issues, systemic approaches to interrelated factors need to be developed in order to reduce impacts, build a governance system allowing for effective mitigation strategies, carry out prevention and develop warning systems.

A cavity under surveillance in the May-sur-Orne mine basin, Normandy

A cavity under surveillance in the May-sur-Orne mine basin (Calvados, Normandy, 2009).


The ambition of BRGM

To respond to this challenge, BRGM intends to be the leading institution for the management of both natural and (post-) industrial hazards within its specialisms. It contributes expertise at different stages of the risk value chain, from prevention and preparedness to warning, crisis management, recovery, adaptation and resilience. Our role is thus to provide research and expertise to understand the processes involved, complement observation with monitoring, design risk-reduction and resilience-building strategies, and develop remediation technologies.

To achieve this ambition, BRGM’s capability needs to grow to increase its potential to integrate surface and subsurface risk evaluation, mitigation and anticipation for various time horizons and at different scales (local or regional), and apply this potential to the understanding of physical and (geo)chemical phenomena and their social impact.

 Diagnosing the stability of underground ex-military workings in the Saint-Sauveur neighbourhood of Cherbourg-en-Cotentin

Our services offered

Serving public and economic players in France and abroad, BRGM offers research, expert studies and technical services in its various fields of geosciences expertise.

Results and data

Post-earthquake mission after the earthquake of 24 August 2016 in central Italy
Scientific publications
BRGM’s scientific publications may be consulted through the HAL-BRGM electronic platform.
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Village of Andlau in the Lower Rhine and surrounding landscapes
Public reports
The BRGM’s scientific results are disseminated in particular through its public reports, which may be consulted on line through BRGM's InfoTerre portal.
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Domingo Savio district of Santo Domingo
PhD theses and post-docs
Co-supervision of PhD theses is one of the cornerstones of BRGM's research activities.
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Erretegia Beach, Pyrénées-Atlantiques

Scientific programme: Natural risks and the resilience of communities

The research strategy focuses on natural hazards impacting the ground (e.g. gravity-related ground instability, shrink–swell, soil erosion), the subsurface (e.g. earth tremors and cavity collapse) and the coastline (e.g. coastal flooding and erosion).

The proposed work under this programme aims to evaluate and anticipate natural hazards according to various space and time horizons using an integrated approach. This also requires the development of sensors and tools, which could be used to better prepare our response to natural crises and anticipate hydrological and climatic phenomena that develop over long periods or cause extreme events.

Build realistic predictive scenarios to improve the prevention of natural hazards

We will develop predictive tools to improve the assessment of natural hazards, taking into account the vulnerability of local and regional communities in a context of climate and demographic pressures. Numerical models, which can be physically based to a lesser or greater extent, are used to prepare future risk orientation maps on a regional level, and risk prevention plans. First, our research will aim to estimate hazards using approaches at multiple scales and timeframes and incorporating a quantification of uncertainty. Examples include the assessment of coastal flooding due to storms or tsunamis, morphological changes to coastal systems, the quantification of seismic acceleration during earthquakes – including site effects – the mapping of unstable slopes that can lead to landslides or collapses, and drought-prone areas. To improve risk assessment, hazard modelling incorporating vulnerability models should be used to derive risk levels.

Research efforts must focus on the development of tools to analyse structural and systemic vulnerability. We can then assess the impact in terms of damage to communities and strategic facilities, using a multirisk approach. As one research topic, we will exploit the contribution to be made to science by risk databases. Other research will explore the potential of decision-support tools and digital risk services. We will broker partnerships with teams in the social sciences and humanities (SSH), particularly to study how risks and planning sciences are perceived.

Research priorities 

  • Understanding the physical processes underpinning seismic, coastal, and hydrological and gravity hazards through the development of phenomenological models.
  • Integrating these processes in numerical models for the assessment of impact using metrological data and including the management of uncertainty.
  • Developing models for estimating the vulnerability of strategic locations to natural hazards.
  • Integrating knowledge into a digital platform for implementing the predictive models developed and producing multirisk assessment maps.

Develop crisis-management support tools for real-time decision-making and rapid response

Crisis management requires highly specific tools and models that are usually different from those used in risk prevention. This field of research has been poorly investigated until now. This objective focuses on identifying and developing the required research for supporting government action and reducing impacts in specific crisis contexts. This includes the development of specific decision-support tools for government departments or local authorities, which can be used in the event of natural or environmental disasters, from emergency preparedness to the actual management of a crisis and the restoration process. Models will be developed to imagine credible complex scenarios that can be used to anticipate and prepare for future crises caused by seismic, volcanic, storm and tsunami disasters in order to provide assistance to civil defence services.

These models use technological sensors (e.g. Copernicus satellite imagery and the RAP/RESIF network’s seismometers) as well as social indicators analysing Twitter feeds, for example. In some cases, complex numerical models may be replaced by faster metamodels. Lastly, we will propose recovery options for communities affected by disasters. For example, the management of post-flooding situations and landslips/mudflows are areas where BRGM’s expertise will be valuable.

Research priorities 

  • Operating existing and new sensor systems and models to quickly describe and assess an extreme event during a crisis in order to support government decision-making. 
  • Developing fast and efficient tools to model an unfolding crisis in real time (e.g. models, observatories, geographic information systems (GIS) and high-performance computing (HPC)) for decision support.
  • Solution-finding methods for the fast recovery of affected communities.

Develop solutions for strengthening the resilience of communities and their adaptation to global change

This research objective focuses on the long-term recovery of communities affected by hazards. It encompasses research on restoring impacted communities to normal and increasing their ability to adapt and be resilient in the aftermath of disasters. We will contribute to the development of strategies for adapting to climate change (e.g. work carried out for the IPCC) and building resilience (e.g. strategies and recommendations for helping communities cope with future hazards). The development of innovative solutions must enable these communities to function again as efficiently as possible, through nature-based solutions and processes in line with the SDGs. We will also study these solutions from an economic perspective to see whether they have the potential to generate high-value products and services.

There is a need to identify innovative monitoring solutions, using sensors and physical, social and economic indicators for assessing adaptation. This may also result in new services. Lastly, attention must be given to community governance and sociology aspects to help local stakeholders come to terms with the new conditions created by global change. For this research component, carried out in collaboration with partners, we will work with our stakeholders to develop recovery and “build back better” policies.

Research priorities 

  • Developing technical solutions based on nature and geotechnology, enabling communities to cope and recover their functions, increase their robustness and even unlock value.
  • Developing methodologies for robust strategies for building the resilience of communities.
  • Developing integrated indicators to assess the physical and economic impacts in terms of damage to community buildings and functions, and recovery.
The holding tank for acid water from the Calimani sulphur mine, Romania

Scientific programme: Management of mining and industrial impacts on land and the subsurface

In the context of urban growth, agricultural land take (estimated at 0.8% per year) and pressure from climate change, it has become essential to manage the effects of our industrial and mining past from a sustainable development perspective. To do so, we need to rationally manage former industrial sites and reclaim degraded urban wasteland. Technological innovation has an important role to play in this area. BRGM is already investing heavily in research into methods and technologies for the
decontamination and management of urban and industrial land.

The programme’s research strategy falls under BRGM’s special role to provide policy support to the government on polluted land and sites, and take on government-delegated responsibility for the management of works to ensure the safety of former mining sites, the monitoring of mining works and the running of the post-mining information system. Research will continue to focus on the rational management of excavated earth and sediments; the implementation of appropriate remediation technologies in line with the planned uses of polluted sites to increase the suitability of these uses and reduce costs; the identification of natural solutions to reduce source impacts (i.e. mining sites); and the regeneration of human-impacted ground.

Characterise and model degraded ground and subsurface to improve understanding and guide management choices in this respect

The goal is to help restore sites back to conditions of use compatible with maintaining a healthy population and environmental protection, while reclaiming environments in line with their intended use. We will develop innovative methods for the characterisation and traceability of pollution processes and the monitoring of degraded mining and industrial environments, based on which we can carry out a reliable assessment. Pollutant migration is highly influenced by biological activity; we will integrate biochemical reactions in numerical models to improve their predictive capability.

This will be valuable to optimise calculations for predictive purposes and the scaling of decontamination activities. We will also carry out research to develop indicators for estimating the resilience potential of human-impacted environments through natural mitigation processes, such as biodegradation. As the target sites have variable pollution levels, research will be carried out into extreme environments in the hope of finding suitable bacterial associations capable of providing new treatment opportunities.

Research priorities

  • Innovative methods and tools for in-situ measurement of the impacts of degraded mining and industrial environments (e.g. representative sampling, measurement and associated uncertainty) and assessing their potential for treatability.
  • Characterising the environmental behaviour of “source terms” (e.g. polluted soil, mining waste and polluted sediments) and predictive modelling of the processes determining the fate of potential pollutants directly below human-impacted sites (e.g. pollutants in the dissolved, vapour or particulate phase).
  • Modelling the restoration of old mining sites and structures to a physical, chemical and hydraulic equilibrium.
  • Developing indicators to estimate the resilience potential of human-impacted environments.

Develop technical solutions for the remediation and reclamation of degraded ground and subsurface

Innovating in the field of contaminated land remediation is a research priority. This includes interventions based on high human input (e.g. chemical degradation reagents or activation energy) or on slower and/or passive natural processes (e.g. biodegradation or mitigation). For the first type of intervention, BRGM will continue its innovative research in partnership with CNRS on the treatment of hydrocarbons, such as organochlorine compounds trapped as residual phases using non-Newtonian fluids (foams) to displace reagents or nutrients or render pollutants soluble. The second type of intervention will focus on nature-based applications, especially in a post-mining or passivation context, with a view to using mineral or organic and mineral associations for attaching contaminants to restore the functions of contaminated ground including man-made ground. This approach will involve the strengthening of research partnerships.

Research priorities

  • Developing techniques to effectively decontaminate ground and subsurface to restore functions and monitor in-situ performance.
  • Stabilising pollutants in contaminated ground (e.g. excavated materials, dredged sediments and waste) to block pollutant translocation.
  • Recovering ground functions using materials from degraded mining or industrial environments.
  • Developing lasting treatments using biological and semi-passive options based on natural functions for decontaminating water on mining sites.
  • Developing innovative solutions for the containment of pollution sources (e.g. mining waste) using multifunction covering.

Developing integrated solutions for the sustainable development planning of communities in areas with degraded mining and industrial sites

The link between the development of sites and ground functions remains poorly understood in spatial planning, as the tools developed are mainly concerned with assessing the impact of development or reclamation on land in line with the requirements of sustainable development. We will research methodologies to develop predictive scenarios on the behaviour of sites remediated for development or as integrated systems in the context of urban redevelopment. We will continue to develop and capitalise on data acquired through our observatories on potentially contaminated sites and urban land, using our knowledge of the ground and subsurface, strategic issues and the processes influencing the fate of contaminants.

In order to optimise development operations in urban and industrial wastelands and former mining sites, BRGM will also need to be able to implement systemic approaches to address the multiple systems in local and regional communities, such as ground, water, sediments and infrastructure, and other approaches, including life-cycle, material-flow and cost–benefit analysis, multicriteria approaches and ecosystem-service evaluation. To broaden the scope of our work, we will form partnerships with teams in the social sciences and humanities (SSH).

Research priorities

  • Developing decision-support methodologies for a systemic approach to strategic issues related to degraded mining and industrial environments, including subsurface multifunctions in an urban planning context.
  • Developing systemic approaches for the reclamation of former mining or industrial sites in a context of broader governance and multiple stakeholder perceptions.