10.2: Mass-Wasting Triggers and Mitigation
- Page ID
Mass-wasting events often have a trigger: something changes that cause a landslide to occur at a specific time. It could be rapid snowmelt, intense rainfall, earthquake shaking, volcanic eruption, storm waves, rapid-stream erosion, or human activities, such as grading a new road. Increased water content within the slope is the most common mass-wasting trigger. Water content can increase due to rapidly melting snow or ice or an intense rain event. Intense rain events can occur more often during El Niño years. Then, the west coast of North America receives more precipitation than normal, and landslides become more common. Changes in surface-water conditions resulting from earthquakes, previous slope failures that dam up streams or human structures that interfere with runoff, such as buildings, roads, or parking lots  can provide additional water to a slope. In the case of the 1959 Hebgen Lake rock slide, Madison Canyon, Montana, the shear strength of the slope may have been weakened by earthquake shaking. Most landslide mitigation diverts and drains water away from slide areas. Tarps and plastic sheeting are often used to drain water off of slide bodies and prevent infiltration into the slide. Drains are used to dewater landslides and shallow wells are used to monitor the water content of some active landslides.
An oversteepened slope may also trigger landslides. Slopes can be made excessively steep by natural processes of erosion or when humans modify the landscape for building construction. An example of how a slope may be oversteepened during development occurs where the bottom of the slope is cut into, perhaps to build a road or level a building lot, and the top of the slope is modified by depositing excavated material from below. If done carefully, this practice can be very useful in land development, but in some cases, this can result in devastating consequences. For example, this might have been a contributing factor in the 2014 North Salt Lake City, Utah landslide. A former gravel pit was regraded to provide a road and several building lots. These activities may have oversteepened the slope, which resulted in a slow-moving landslide that destroyed one home at the bottom of the slope. Natural processes such as excessive stream erosion from a flood or coastal erosion during a storm can also oversteepened slopes. For example, natural undercutting of the riverbank was proposed as part of the trigger for the famous 1925 Gros Ventre, Wyoming rock slide.
Slope reinforcement can help prevent and mitigate landslides. For rockfall-prone areas, sometimes it is economical to use long steel bolts. Bolts, drilled a few meters into a rock face, can secure loose pieces of material that could pose a hazard. Shockcrete, a reinforced spray-on form of concrete, can strengthen a slope face when applied properly. Buttressing a slide by adding weight at the toe of the slide and removing weight from the head of the slide, can stabilize a landslide. Terracing, which creates a stairstep topography, can be applied to help with slope stabilization, but it must be applied at the proper scale to be effective.
A different approach in reducing landslide hazard is to shield, catch, and divert the runout material. Sometimes the most economical way to deal with a landslide hazard is to divert and slow the falling material. Special stretchable fencing can be applied in areas where rockfall is common to protect pedestrians and vehicles. Runout channels, diversion structures, and check dams can be used to slow debris flows and divert them around structures. Some highways have special tunnels that divert landslides over the highway. In all of these cases, the shielding has to be engineered to a scale that is greater than the slide, or catastrophic loss in property and life could result.