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GeoSciences Column: Can seismic signals help understand landslides and rockfalls?

GeoSciences Column: Can seismic signals help understand landslides and rockfalls?

From the top of a small gully in the French Alps, a 472 kg block is launched into the chasm. Every detail of it’s trajectory down the slope is scrutinised by two cameras and a network of seismometers. They zealously record every bounce, scrape and tumble – precious data in the quest to better understand landslides.

What makes landslides tick?

In 2016, fatalities caused by landslides tipped 2,250 people. The United States Geological Survey (USGS) estimates that between 25 and 50 people are killed, annually, by landslides in the United States alone. Quantifying the economic losses caused by landslides is no easy task, but the costs are known to be of economic significance.

It is paramount that the mechanisms which govern landslides are better understood in hopes that the knowledge will lead to improved risk management in the future.

But landslides and rockfalls are rarely observed in real-time. Deciphering an event, when all you have left behind is a pile of debris, is no easy task. The next best thing (if not better than!) to witnessing a landslide (from a safe distance) is having a permanent record of its movement as it travels down a slope.

Although traditionally used to study earthquakes, seismometers have now become so sophisticated they are able to detect the slightest ground movements; whether they come from deep within the bowels of the planet or are triggered by events at the surface. For some year’s now they have been an invaluable tool in detecting mass movements (an all-encompassing term for the movement of bed rock, rock debris, soil, or mud down a slope) across the globe.

More recently, processing recorded seismic signals triggered by large catastrophic events has not only allowed to identify when and where they occurred, but also their force, how quickly they travel, gain speed and their direction of movement.

This approach gives only a limited amount of data for scientists to work with. After all, large, catastrophic, mass movements represent only a fraction of the landslide and rockfall events that occur worldwide. To gain a fuller understanding of landslide processes, information about the smaller events is needed too.

So, what if scientists could use a seismic signal which is generated by all mass movements, independent of their size?

The high-frequency seismic signal

A high-frequency seismic signal is generated as the individual particles, which combined make up a landslide or rockfall, bounce and tumble against the underlying layer of rock. Would it be possible to, retrospectively, find out information about the size and speed at which individual particles traveled from this seismic signal alone?

This very question is what took a team of scientists up into the valleys of the French Alps.

At a place where erosion carves gullies into lime-rich muds, the researchers set-up two video cameras and network of seismometers. They then launched a total of 28 blocks, of weights ranging from 76 to 472 kg, down a 200 m long gully and used the data acquired to reconstruct the precise trajectory of each block.

The impacts of each block on the underlying geology, as seen on camera, were plotted on a 3D representation of the terrain’s surface. From the time of impact, block flight time and trajectory, the team were able to find out the velocity at which the blocks travelled and the energy they carried.

View from (a) the first and (b) the second video cameras deployed at the bottom of the slope. The ground control points are indicated by blue points. (c) Trajectory reconstruction for block 4 on the DEM, built from lidar acquisition, superimposed on an orthophoto
of the Rioux-Bourdoux slopes. Each point indicates the position of an impact and the colour gradient represents the chronology of these impacts (blue for the first impact and red for the last one). K2 is a three-component short-period seismometer and K1, K3 and K3 are vertical-only seismometers. CMG1 is a broad-band seismometer. From Hibert, C. et al., 2017. (Click to enlarge)

As each block impacted the ground, it generated a high-frequency seismic signal, which was recorded by the seismometers. The signals were processed to see if information about the (now known) properties of the blocks could be recovered.

Following a detailed analysis, the team of scientists, who recently published their results in the EGU’s open access journal Earth Surface Dynamics, found a correlation between the amplitude (the height of the wave from it’s resting position), as well as the energy of the seismic signals and the mass and velocities of the blocks before impact. This suggests that indeed, these high-frequency seismic signal can be used to find out details about rockfall and landslide dynamics.

But much work is left to be done.

There is no doubt that the type of substrate on which the particles/blocks bounce upon play a large part in governing the dynamics of mass movements. In the case of the French Alps experiment, the underlying geology of lime-rich muds was very soft and absorbed some of the energy of the impacts. Other experiments (which didn’t use single blocks), performed in hard volcanic and metamorphic rocks, found energy absorption was lessened. To really get to the bottom of how much of a role the substrate plays, single-block, controlled release experiments, like the one described in the paper, should be performed on a variety of rock types.

At the same time, while this experiment certainly highlights a link between seismic signals and individual blocks, rockfalls and landslides are made up of hundreds of thousands of particles, all of which interact with one another as they cascade down a slope. How do these complex interactions influence the seismic signals?

By Laura Roberts Artal, EGU Communications Officer

References and resources:

Hibert, C., Malet, J.-P., Bourrier, F., Provost, F., Berger, F., Bornemann, P., Tardif, P., and Mermin, E.: Single-block rockfall dynamics inferred from seismic signal analysis, Earth Surf. Dynam., 5, 283-292, doi:10.5194/esurf-5-283-2017, 2017.

USGS FAQs: How many deaths result from landslides each year?

The human cost of landslides in 2016 by David Petley, published, 30 January 2017 in The Landslide Blog, AGU Blogosphere.

[Paywalled] Klose M., Highland L., Damm B., Terhorst B.: Industrialized Countries: Challenges, Concepts, and Case Study. In: Sassa K., Canuti P., Yin Y. (eds) Landslide Science for a Safer Geoenvironment. Springer, Cham, (2014)

 

Imaggeo on Mondays: Natural Bridges Monument, Utah, USA

Imaggeo on Mondays: Natural Bridges Monument, Utah, USA

Slowly but surely, the force of water has carved out a beautiful landscape in the sandstones of the Colorado Plateau. Suspended over canyons, naturally formed bridges and arches are the starts of Utah’s first national monument. The geological and modern  history of the region is rich as Kimberly Galvez, a student of the University of Miami, describes below.

This image shows an overview of a portion of the Natural Bridges Monument in Utah, taken from the Colorado Plateau. In the lower center of the picture is the Sipapu Bridge, one of the 3 bridges within the national park.

The dominating sandstone comes from the Permian Cedar Mesa Formation that is part of the Colorado Plateau, a geologic province that extends through southern Utah and northern Arizona, northwest New Mexico, and western Colorado; with geologic units including the Lower Cutler Beds from the Pennsylvanian, Permian Organ Rock and Cedar Mesa Formation, Triassic Chinle and Moenkopi Formations, Jurassic Wingate Sandstone and the Quaternary alluvium.

Due to the regional uplift the Colorado Plateau experienced, meandering rivers progressively cut through the crossbedded sandstone – cross-bedding reflects the transport of sand by a flow of water over a river channel – of the Cedar Mesa Formation forming the bridges, leaving behind the exposed erosional surfaces carved out by the river.

Today, these bridges face many challenges: The region is still seismically active. Earthquake activity could lead to the collapse of (some of) the bridges and other small formations. Due to the low stability of the sandstone from the lack of anchoring from root structures, slope failures and slumps can be quite common and especially in the event of flash floods. Continuous wind patterns increase erosion and alter the exposed surfaces and the structure of the channel is constantly changing due to seasonal rainstorms.  Sediment transport and deposition, caused by streamflow, is a major factor in channel morphology and, therefore, the ecosystem of the Natural Bridges Monument.  The National Park Service constantly monitors the changes and issues that arise.

A final remark: Thanks to the entire group of the 2015 Annual AAPG Student Field Trip for making this photo possible. Members of the CSL – Center for Carbonate Research and the UM Student Chapter of AAPG for funds, and field trip leaders: Gregor Eberli and Donald McNeill.

By Kimberly C. Galvez, University of Miami – RSMAS

Imaggeo is the EGU’s online open access geosciences image repository. All geoscientists (and others) can submit their photographs and videos to this repository and, since it is open access, these images can be used for free by scientists for their presentations or publications, by educators and the general public, and some images can even be used freely for commercial purposes. Photographers also retain full rights of use, as Imaggeo images are licensed and distributed by the EGU under a Creative Commons licence. Submit your photos at http://imaggeo.egu.eu/upload/.

 

Imaggeo on Mondays: Erosion

Imaggeo on Mondays: Erosion

In mountainous regions precipitation – be that in the form of rain, hail or snow, for example – drives erosion, which means it plays an important part in shaping the way the landscape looks. Precipitation can directly wear away at hillsides and creates streams and rivers, which leave their mark on the scenery by cutting and calving their way through it.

Take for instance the hills in the arid coastal region of Pisco Valley, in Peru (pictured above). Contrary to what you might think having first looked at the photograph, very little erosion of rock happens here. The solid rock which makes up the undulating hills is a hard-wearing grantic rock (not dissimilar to the stone you might covet for your kitchen countertops).

Over time, wind-blown sediments have blanketed the granites. Loesses, as the deposits are known, are very soft and range between 20 and 60 cm in thickness. The channels which slice the hillside are carved into the loesses, not the granites which lie below.

Rain is such a rare thing in these parts that soil barely forms (Norton et al., 2015) and it’s impossible for plants to grow on the soft substrate, leaving the slopes exposed to the elements. When the infrequent rains do come, small scale gullies, only a few centimetres deep cut their way into the sediments, taking away material loosened by torrential rainfalls at high speeds.

References

Kevin P. Norton, Peter Molnar, Fritz Schlunegger, The role of climate-driven chemical weathering on soil production, Geomorphology, Volume 204, 1 January 2014, Pages 510-517, ISSN 0169-555X, http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.geomorph.2013.08.030.

Imaggeo is the EGU’s online open access geosciences image repository. All geoscientists (and others) can submit their photographs and videos to this repository and, since it is open access, these images can be used for free by scientists for their presentations or publications, by educators and the general public, and some images can even be used freely for commercial purposes. Photographers also retain full rights of use, as Imaggeo images are licensed and distributed by the EGU under a Creative Commons licence. Submit your photos at http://imaggeo.egu.eu/upload/.

 

Imaggeo on Mondays: The shrinking of Earth’s saltiest lake

One of the consequences of the rapid fall of the water level (>1 m per year), is that vast areas of salt-rich ground of the shrunken Dead Sea are prone to strong dissolution and mechanical erosion of the subsurface processes.

The Dead Sea is one of the saltiest lakes on Earth, located at the lowest point of the globe.  For centuries it has been known for the restorative powers of its muds and waters. Their hypersalinity means it is possible to easily float on the lake’s surface.

Bordering Israel, the West Bank and Jordan, it is a unique environment in an otherwise arid region.  Changing climate, which is seeing temperatures rise in the Middle East, and the increased demand for water in the region (for irrigation) mean the areas on the banks of the lake are suffering a major water shortage. As a result, the lake is shrinking at an alarming rate.

The changing geomorphology of the Dead Sea region is now the focus of a large international project (DESERVE) to address the resulting geohazards at the Dead Sea.

One of the consequences of the rapid fall of the water level (>1 m per year), is that vast areas of salt-rich ground of the shrunken Dead Sea are prone to strong dissolution and mechanical erosion of the subsurface processes. This leads to the widespread land subsidence and the development of sinkholes, which pose a major geological hazard to infrastructure, local population, agriculture and industry in the Dead Sea area, writes Djamil Al-Halbouni in an abstract presented at the EGU 2016 General Assembly.

Today’s Imaggeo on Monday’s image was taken in the purpose of investigating the sinkhole phenomenon along the coastline.

“Near-surface aerial photography offer valuable hints on possible processes that lead to the formation of huge depression zones, e.g. the ground and surface water flow, the existence of vegetation and water sources or simply the morphology,” explains Djamil.

Sets of images are then combined into digital terrain models to quantitatively estimate hazard potentials and development of sinkholes via repeated measurements.

Specifically, this image was taken by a camera on a helikite balloon from 150m altitude. It shows a canyon penetrating the whitish pure salt shoreline at the Jordanian coast. It also reveals, in its’ magnitude surprising for the scientists involved, round structures under the shallow water, which are interpreted as submarine springs and possible submarine sinkholes close to the shore.

 By Laura Roberts and Djamil Al-Halbouni of the German Research Center for Geosciences, Physics of the Earth, Potsdam, German

Imaggeo is the EGU’s online open access geosciences image repository. All geoscientists (and others) can submit their photographs and videos to this repository and, since it is open access, these images can be used for free by scientists for their presentations or publications, by educators and the general public, and some images can even be used freely for commercial purposes. Photographers also retain full rights of use, as Imaggeo images are licensed and distributed by the EGU under a Creative Commons licence. Submit your photos at http://imaggeo.egu.eu/upload/.