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CLASSIFICATION OF MASS WASTING
It is important to classify slope failures so that we can understand what causes them and learn how to mitigate their effects. The three criteria used to describe slope failures are:
The type of motion is the essential characteristic of slope failure, and there are three different types of motion:
Unfortunately, it is not typically that simple. Many slope failures involve two of these types of motion, some involve all three, and in many cases, it is not easy to tell how the material moved. The types of slope failure are summarized below.
Rock fragments can break off relatively easily from steep bedrock slopes, most commonly due to frost-wedging in areas where there are many freeze-thaw cycles per year. When hiking along a steep mountain trail on a cool morning, one might have heard the occasional fall of rock fragments onto a talus slope. This happens because the water between cracks freezes and expands overnight, and then when that same water thaws in the morning sun, the fragments that had been pushed beyond their limit by the ice fall to the slope below.
A rock slide is the sliding motion of rock along a sloping surface. In most cases, the movement is parallel to a fracture, bedding, or metamorphic foliation plane, and it can range from very slow to moderately fast. The word sackung describes the very slow motion of a block of rock (mm/y to cm/y) on a slope.
If a rock slides and then starts moving quickly (m/s), the rock is likely to break into many small pieces, and at that point it turns into a rock avalanche, in which the large and small fragments of rock move in a fluid manner supported by a cushion of air within and beneath the moving mass.
CREEP OR SOLIFLUCTION
The very slow, millimeters per year to centimeters per year, movement of soil or other unconsolidated material on a slope is known as creep. Creep, which generally only affects the upper several centimeters of loose material, is typically a very slow flow, but in some cases, sliding may take place. Creep can be facilitated by freezing and thawing because particles are lifted perpendicular to the surface by the growth of ice crystals within the soil, and then let down vertically by gravity when the ice melts. The same effect can be produced by frequent wetting and drying of the soil. In cold environments, solifluction is a more intense form of freeze-thaw-triggered creep.
Creep is most noticeable on moderate-to-steep slopes where trees, fence posts, or grave markers are consistently leaning in a downhill direction. In the case of trees, they try to correct their lean by growing upright, and this leads to a curved lower trunk known as a “pistol butt.”
Slump is a type of slide (movement as a mass) that takes place within thick unconsolidated deposits (typically thicker than 10 m). Slumps involve movement along one or more curved failure surfaces, with downward motion near the top and outward motion toward the bottom. They are typically caused by an excess of water within these materials on a steep slope.
MUDFLOWS AND DEBRIS FLOWS
When a mass of sediment becomes completely saturated with water, the mass loses strength, to the extent that the grains are pushed apart, and it will flow, even on a gentle slope. This can happen during rapid spring snowmelt or heavy rains, and is also relatively common during volcanic eruptions because of the rapid melting of snow and ice. (A mudflow or debris flow on a volcano or during a volcanic eruption is a lahar.) If the material involved is primarily sand-sized or smaller, it is known as a mudflow.
If the material involved is gravel-sized or larger, it is known as a debris flow. Because it takes more gravitational energy to move larger particles, a debris flow typically forms in an area with steeper slopes and more water than does a mudflow. In many cases, a debris flow takes place within a steep stream channel, and is triggered by the collapse of bank material into the stream. This creates a temporary dam, and then a significant flow of water and debris when the dam breaks.
Introduction to Physical Geography by R. Adam Dastrup is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.
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