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Mass Movement/ Mass Wasting


Factors Affecting Mass Movement

Types of Mass Movement

Predicting Mass Movement

Mass Movement Prevention and Mitigation


Mass movement/ mass wasting involves the downslope displacement of regolith

and rock.

Mass movement can be a serious hazard where expanding populations build

homes on steep slopes.

The hazard is especially severe when hillside development is done in a seismic

zone, ie where ground shaking is a constant threat.

Two classes of forces are involved in mass movement: driving forces, which
promote them, and resisting forces, which deter movement.

Mass movement is relatively more frequent on steeper slopes, indicating that

gravity is a major driving forces.

However, water is also an agent that can promote mass movement under most
conditions, but water can also resist movement under other conditions.
Mass Movement/ Wasting refers to the down slope Movement of soil, rock and
unconsolidated materials in response to gravity.
Not a response to normal erosive agents of water, wind and ice;
Occurs when the strength of gravity > the strength of slope materials (i.e.,
resistance to deformation);

Material or mass moves down slope at variable velocities ranging from very slow to
catastrophic and is generically referred to as a Landslide ;

Mass moves as either falls, slides and flows;

May be triggered by water (from heavy rains, floods) as well as, by earthquakes,

In USA alone, between 25-50 deaths and from US$1-2 billion in property damage
each year;

An engineers role to minimise these losses during construction and land

Triggers for Mass Movement

If the right combination of materials, moisture content and steepened

slopes exists, a slide or flow is inevitable. Only the trigger is missing!

Heavy rainstorms may trigger the unstable slope and/ or badly designed
runoff water disposal systems can have a similar effect.

Frequently vibrations like those produced by earthquakes, can convert

water-saturated sandy layers in clay to slurries by liquefaction. Large blocks
are then free to slide downslope.

Often slopes are gradually oversteepened either by natural causes or by

human intervention. These eventually suffer sudden collapse.
Causes of Mass Movement

Slope stability analysis : The controlling force of mass

wasting is gravity. But slope failure often involves many
variables. A basic approach to evaluating slope stability is
to identify the driving forces and the resisting forces.

factor of safety (FS)=

(total resisting forces)/(total driving forces)
Angle of Repose

The maximum angle at which granular materials can be piled is called the
angle of repose.

Particle size and shape are dominant factors in the angle of repose, but
other factors are also important.
Larger particles maintain a steeper slope than smaller ones.
Angular particles can interlock along their rougher edges and maintain steeper
slopes than more rounded particles of the same size
Poorly sorted sediments have a steeper angle of repose because the smaller
particles fit between the larger ones, giving the overall collection of particles
stability at a steeper angle.
Particle Packing

The way particles are arranged in a deposit can affect slope stability. The
arrangement of particles in a deposit is called packing.
Twi examples:
Cubic packing: occurs when grains are positioned so their centres are directly above
those of grains below. This is the loosest type of packing and has the most pore
Rhombohedral packing: occurs when the centres of grains are located over spaces
between grains below. This is the tightest forms of packing and has the least pore
Slope stability can be affected by a change in packing, because a change from loose
(cubic) to tight (rhombohedral) packing decreases the volume and lowers the
surface. Any type of ground movement, such as an earthquake, construction
activities, blasting, or highway traffic can be sufficient to change the packing of
material, affecting slope stability. Structures built on such material may be
damaged because the support of the foundation changes.
Another effect of packing change is a reduction in pore soace. This can expel pore
fluids, most commonly water, (but sometimes oil) and cause liquefaction in sand
sized and silt sized sediments. This process commonly occurs in some sediments as
a result of seismic shearing forces.
Role of Rock Structures

Pore spaces between particles allow fluids to pass through, dissolving the
cementing material and weakening the rock.
Intersecting sets of parallel joints allow rocks to break into smaller masses
that move more easily downslope.
Contact surfaces between beds of rocks that have different characteristics
are points of weakness along which rocks can break.
NB: dipping layers facilitate mass movement when they aare inclined in the
same direction as the slope of the land.
To determine slope failure potential, detailed geological studies are necessary
before excavating a slope. This is is extremely important for transportation and
civil engineers, who are concerned with the stability of slopes along highways,
railways, canals, streams and construction sites.
Influence of water
Water promotes movement in different ways:
As an active agent, it increases the loading (weight) of sediment or
rock by filling previously empty pores and this way water
becomes a driving force by increasing the weight of the slope material and
thus increasing the force driving the sediment downslope.

Water also decreases the strength of the rock or sediment by

reducing the cohesion among particles. Additionally, water circulating
through pores of some rocks dissolves soluble cementing material, such as
calcium carbonate. This action reduces cohesion. The force exerted by the
growth of ice crystals in rock crevices can also break apart rocks along joints
and bedding surfaces. The loosened rock subsequently can move downslope.
Water can lead to expanding clays and liquefaction of clays. Some clay rich
sediments can absorb large quantities of water and can swell up to many times
their original volume if unconfined. For example with bentonite, which is
composed of clay minerals formed from the chemical alteration of some volcanic
igneous rocks, such as tuff. When water enters the ground, any layers of bentonite
that are present swell. The swelling/ expansion of clays can exert pressure on
overlying rocks, soil and structures. Between rain/ wetting events, the layers dry
and contract forming large surface cracks that can damage overlying structures.
Sediment of this type are commonly called shrink- swell clays. They are a
common geo-hazard to the foundation of buildings. If water saturated bentonite is
on a slope, the material forms a slick surface that reduces friction and facilitates
downslope movement of any overlying layers.

Liquefaction of clays: A quickclay is a type of clay that is transformed rapidly from a

solid to a liquid under certain conditions. One type forms from clay minerals that
originally accumulated under saline conditions (eg seas). Ions from the seawater
can remain in the porewater, holding the clay minerals together by the attraction
of their electrical charges. When such clays are subjected to freshwater flowing
through their pores, saltwater ions are flushed out. With these ions gone, the
structure is greatly weakened, making the formerly solid clay unstable. If the slope
is subjected to vibrations, the clay structure may collapse and transform quickly
into a viscous fluid, which flows downslope.
Water as a resisting force: in some ways water can be a resisting force. In
sediment pores that are not filled completely with water, the thin water
film actually makes the particles cohesive. Cohesion is the ability of
particles to attract and hold each other together. This happens because
the water molecules in the thin water films that line the pores attract one
another. This attraction is called surface tension. Because the water films
are also attracted to the particle surfaces, the effect of surface tension is
to pull the particles together.
Removal of lateral support

A common way to increase the driving force

on a potential failure plane is to remove
materials from the base of the slope, by river
erosion, previous slope movements, or human
modification such as road cuts.
A river cuts into the base of a slope, steepening the sides of the valley, making
the slopes unstable.

Plants protect against erosion and contribute

to the stability of slopes because their root
systems bind soil together. Plants also absorb
subsurface water.
Where plants are lacking (e.g. removed by
fire), mass wasting is enhanced, especially
when slopes are steep and water is plentiful.
A fire that stripped of
vegetation and root
systems in Yellowstone
National Park caused a
weakening of the soil,
making it susceptible to
erosion and mass
movement. (G. Meyer)
Earthquakes as triggers

Conditions that favor mass wasting may exist in an

area for a long time without movement occurring.
Earthquakes are dramatic triggers that can dislodge
enormous volumes of earth materials.

In many areas, it is not ground vibrations directly,

but landslides and ground subsidence triggered by
the vibrations that cause the greatest damage.
This 4-km long tongue of rubble was deposited atop a
glacier by a rock avalanche after the great 1964 Alaska
earthquake. A rock avalanche is a high velocity flow of
large masses of broken rocky material.
Various forms of mass wasting can be triggered by
earthquakes. This landslide in Pacific Palisades, CA
was triggered by 1994 Northridge earthquake.
Classifications of Mass Movement
Types of Mass Movement

The three major types of mass movement are distinguished by the type of
movement of rock or sediment
Flow: mass moves downhill as a viscous fluid

Slide: mass remains intact: slips along well-defined surfaces

Translational slide movement parallel to motion
Rotational slide (slump) movement along a curved surface

Fall: mass free-falls or bounces down a cliff

Speeds of mass movement:

soil creep -> earth slump ->

debris flow, mud flow ->
rockslide -> rock fall, rock avalanche
Soil creep

Creep is the slow downslope migration of soil

and loose rock fragments.
Creep is a slow movement, but its effects are
often visible. (Tarbuck and Lutgens)
A fence offset by creep in California (T. Amos)
Trees that grow in creeping soil gradually develop pronounced curves. (Martin Miller)

similar to sliding movement, but the

descending material move along a curved
(circular) surface of rupture. Slumps are
common in soils or rocks of low shear strength.
Slump occurs when material slips downslope
along a curved surface of rupture. Earthflows and
debris flows often form at the base of the slump.
(Tarbuck and Lutgents)
Slump is often triggered when slopes become
oversteepened by erosional processes such as
wave action. Point Fermin, CA (J.S. Shelton)
Debris flow

Debris flow contains material that is coarser

than sand, generally restricted to channels
and commonly result from unusually heavy
Debris flows move faster than creeps and
Flows occur when material moves downslope as a
viscous fluid. Debris flow contains material that is
coarser than sand and can travel a few km/hour.
(Press and Siever)
Debris flows are common on the slopes of some volcanoes
(such flows are termed lahars). A lahar along a river
northwest of Mt. St. Helens.

Mudflow contains materials finer than sand and

large quantities of water. Mudflows are generally
even faster than debris flow.

Mudflows are rapid and are common in semiarid

regions and are confined to channels. Soil and debris
accumulate until infrequent rainfall triggers high
runoff. Water decreases shear strength, and the wet
mass flows rapidly down the channel.
Mudflow in Mill Valley, California in Jan 1997,
triggered by heavy rains from a powerful Pacific
storm. (Tarbuck and Lutgens)
Rockfall: individual blocks drop in a free fall from
a cliff or steep mountainside.
An illustration of frost wedging. (Tarbuck and Lutgens)
Rockslide. Large masses of bedrocks move as a
unit in a fast downward slide.
Flows occur when material moves downslope as a
viscous fluid. Debris flow contains material that is
coarser than sand and can travel a few km/hour.
(Press and Siever)

Rockslides occur when blocks of bedrock

break loose and slide down a slope. Rockslides
are among fastest and most destructive mass

Rockslides typically take place where the rock

strata are inclined.
Rock slides along
beding planes.
(West, p.303)
A massive rockslide along the Madison River of
Montana triggered by Aug 17, 1959 earthquake.
The rocks blocked the canyon and created
Earthquake Lake (J. Montagne)
Preventing Mass Movements

In many cases, the best solution is avoidance.

Geologists look for landform of past movements, detect

regions that are beginning to move, or identify potential
hazards, to construct landslide-potential maps.
Predicting Mass Movement

Several factors indicate areas that have mass movement potential. Some factors
reveal potentially unstable surfaces; others indicate mass movement in its earliest

Slope and Seismic Activity: The steeper a natural slope, the greater its potential for
downslope movement. Construction commonly over-steepens natural slopes. If
these artificial slopes are not properly protected, they will be subject to mass
movement. The material underlying a steep slope should be examined before
construction, because such slopes are most subject to land sliding. This is especially
true is there is seismic activity in the region.

Accelerated creep and Associated Features: Natural creep is very slow. However,
creep rate can increase markedly if the mass of material is on the verge of failing.
Creep rates can be measured by devices implanted within the slope. Creep can also
be detected by studying surface features. Downslope tilting of recently planted
vegetation or recently constructed fences and utility poles indicate high rates of
creep. Deformed and fractured road surfaces cut into the slope also may be
Geology and Structure: Slopes underlain by soluble rocks, or rocks easily
weakened by water, have a greater potential for sliding. The potential is
further increased if either bedding planes or joints in the rock are inclined
towards valleys.

Surface Water Buildup: The buildup of water within slope materials can
destabalize them. The problem is how to determine the water conditions
within the slope without directly drilling into it. Valuable clues include,
springs along the slope, areas of continually wet ground, and pools of
standing water, especially if they are oriented parallel to the edge of a cliff.
These features suggest a high degree of water saturation.

Topographic and Vegetation Features: A low area delimited by a

semicircular scarp (low cliff) may represent and old landslide. This is
especially true if the material in the low area has a hammocky topography
(irregular or knobby) caused by flow masses or slide blocks, and if the areas
vegetation is distinctly younger than that on either side. Such features
indicate a past landslide and warn that the area requires detailed
examination before construction.
Landslide Potential Maps
Examination of past landslides and geologic studies of potentially unstable
slopes can be used to construct landslide potential maps.
To make such a map, areas underlain by slide- prone soils or rock are
These areas then are superimposed on a topographic map. Where steep
slopes (shown by the map contours) and landslide prone soils or rocks
coincide, these areas are mapped as slide- prone.
Mass Movement Prevention and Mitigation

Certain steps can be taken to remediate the problem and stabilize the slope.

Slope Drainage: water buildup within slopes can be reduced by several

engineering techniques. Interceptor drains can be excavated along the top
of the slope. These concrete lined drains capture run off and transport it
away from the slope. Perforated pipe can be driven into the slope to collect
water and drain it by gravity away from the slope. Wells driven into the
slope can be pumped to remove water rapidly in especially critical areas.

Slope reduction: steep slopes can be graded into gentler ones to reduce the
landslide danger. If there is not enough room for such extensive grading,
benches or terraces may be excavated into the slope. Breaking the slope
into terraces or stair steps not only improves stability, but it also stops
falling material before it can reach the protected area at the bottom of the
slope and prevents water erosion by interrupting the flow of rills or
channels that drain the slope.
Revegetation removes
water, and tree roots
bind regolith. (W.W.
Redistributing the mass
on a slope eases the
load where necessary,
adds support where
necessary, and
decreases slope angles.
Terracing a steep slope
may decrease the load and
provide benches to catch
Reducing subsurface
water: Lowering the level
of water table may allow a
glide horizon to dry out.
Relocating a river
channel away from cliff
stops undercutting, and
filling the channel adds
Riprap (lose boulders
or concrete) absorbs
wave energy along the
Protecting the surface: one way to discourage slope disintegration is to
protect the surface from rain and snow. All crevices are sealed and layers of
concrete and crushed rock are sprayed onto the surface in layers 8 to 10
centimetres thick. This coating of shot-crete (concrete shot unto the
surface) prevents water from entering the rock to cause frost wedging.
Retaining walls: slopes underlain by sediment or loosely consolidated rock
are protected from sliding by retaining walls. Retaining walls may be built of
a variety of materials. They usually include drains so that groundwater can
exit the slope before the fluid pressure builds against the wall.
Constructing safety
structures: A retaining wall
traps falling rock.
Buttresses: overhanging rock is stabilized by supporting it with buttresses.
These concrete and steel structures shore up the overhang and prevent
Engineering Structures to Mitigate Damage

Where mass movement is inevitable,

engineering structures can minimize
damage. They often are back-ups for
upslope structures built to prevent
landslides, but which may fail to do so.
Nets and wire fences: slopes subject to
rockfall may be protected by cable nets
and wire fences that catch rock blocks
before they can do damage. Commonly
these structures are associated with
intercept ditched excavated along the
slope base or by berms (ridges) built along
the base. These structures catch and
debris that gets past upslope protection
Rock bolts: inclined layers are stabilized with rock bolts. Holes are drilled
into the rock below the level of any possible slip surface. Steel rods are
inserted and cemented in place within the holes. Plates are placed over the
ends of the rocks and tightened against the rock face.
Rock sheds and tunnels: sometimes a structure is intended to allow a
landslide to pass over an area without disturbing whatever it is designed to
protect. Rock sheds and tunnels are reinforced structures built over
highway and railroad segments that are subject to landslide. The allow mass
to pass over without collapsing. Similar structures are used in snow
avalanche areas to keep transportation routes open all winter.
Bolting holds loose blocks in place. An avalanche shed diverts avalanche debris
over a roadway.
Review Questions

Many mass movements occur after rainfalls. Why?

What examples can you give for human activities which may trigger mass

For field class:

What features would you look for in the field for constructing a landslide
potential map?

How do slope angle and types of grain packing in a sediment affect the slope

Mass movement is triggered when driving forces exceed resisting forces

The major driving force is gravity, assisted by water.

Mass movement is characterized as falls, slides, or flows, depending on the

nature of the debris movement.

Resisting forces include friction and the shear strength of the material. Rock
structures such as bedding and joints are important in facilitating mass
movement. Whenever these features are inclined toward a valley or
excavation, greater danger of slope failure exists

Expanding clays and quickclays create conditions favorable to mass

movement if the surface is disturbed by vibrations. Granular materials piled
at an angle exceeding their angle of repose are rpone to slope failure upon
vibrations, precipitation, excavation or loading.
Potential landslides areas can be identified by steep slopes, indications of
past landslide, water buildup, rock structures inclined towards valleys,
younger trees covering an irregular topography, and accelerated creep of
surface sediments.

Mass movement danger is reduced by controlling drainage and reducing he

slope angle. Engineering structures used include sheetcrete coating,
retaining walls, rock bolting and buttresses.

Lanslide impact can be mitigated with cable nets and wire fences, berms,
intercept ditches, rock sheds and tunnels.

The best way to minimize damage from landslides is to avoid building in

such areas, but this is not always possible.
We cannot prevent most natural mass movements, but we can minimize
our losses through careful control of construction and land development.

Careful engineering can keep water from making material more unstable.

In areas that are extremely prone to mass movements, development may

have to be restricted.