Large landslides along Thompson River near Ashcroft, BC

This is a topic I plan to flesh out a little over the next month or two. I want to explore a couple of topics that interest me:

– uncertainty in geotechnique; and
– scale effects in geomorphology (in time and space)

First, by way of a quick snapshot, there are a couple dozen large landslides in the Thompson River corridor south of Ashcroft, BC, Canada. Here’s an overview map:

Here are a couple of pictures of what these landslides look like:

The landslides in this map are up to about 1 km wide by 1 km long. They tend to have fairly low travel angles, ranging from about 7 to 18 degrees, averaging about 10-ish. Such relatively low travel angles are, to me, an indication of a brittle failure mechanism, or progressive failure. In order to have travel angles that flat, one must have either low strength, high pore pressures, or both.

The landslides occur in glaciolacustrine laminated silts and clays. Here’s a picture of a typical exposure:

The geological record in the region retains a record of at least four glacial episodes, and I believe three of them are known to be present in this reach of the Thompson, with post-glacial (glaciolacustrine) sediments separated by glacial drift (till, glaciofluvial, etc), resulting in a fairly complex sediment package.

On the topic of geotechnical uncertainty…

There has been some really excellent work published about these landslides, in particular several papers by former doctoral student Eshraghian at University of Alberta, working under the supervision of Norbert Morgenstern, David Cruden and Derek Martin. In their work, they’ve drawn conclusions about failure mechanisms that have substantial support from the physical evidence. However, I think the door remains open for alternate interpretations, with considerable evidence available to support such alternatives. Here I suggest that liquefaction of silt under high seepage pressures likely played a significant role, perhaps moreso than the role of high plastic clay with low residual strength. More on this some time later. But the point I’m working on is that even with the benefit of considerable effort by world class researchers, it is not always possible to solve complex geotechnical problems.

On the topic of scale….

These particular landslides are known to be influenced by seasonal changes in groundwater behaviour. The following image shows 4 years of observations of groundwater levels in nested piezometers, along with river levels in the adjacent Thompson:

What we see is that groundwater levels at different depths follow the river level, with the effect being more pronounced closer to the ground surface. By extension, we will see upward gradients throughout the year, with these increasing rapidly following drawdown after the summer peak flood. Coincidentally, major landslide movements tend to occur during that period. Also, major landslide activity tends to occur in years with above average peak flood, as shown in the following graph:

During the period of relatively careful record, landslides ONLY occur following major floods, and DO NOT occur in years with low peak floods.

The point I’m trying to come around to, however, is that in the case of these landslides, behaviour of the river, and associated landslide activity, is not obviously controlled by local weather, snowmelt, rainfall etc, but rather is controlled by larger area factors that determine behaviour of the river at this point. This shows the absence of a relationship between local weather (rainfall and temps) and river levels:

Here is a map showing location of the affected area within the overall river watershed:

You can see the site is near the outlet of the river into the Fraser River. We can look at snow pack thickness in the uplands of the watershed:

And find there is a pretty good correlation between average peak snowpack and peak flood:

Anyway, I will work both these angles a little bit, but will likely leave this topic along for a couple weeks or more.

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A casual inquiry about climate change

I’ve recently engaged in some healthy discussion about climate change, and thought I should try to record some of my thoughts, and the results of some preliminary, casual investigations into the topic.

First, a couple of general comments. It strikes me that the topic of climate change is emotionally and politically charged. It seems everyone has an opinion, whether informed by science or media, and such opinions tend to be strongly held, and strongly defended. A little over a year ago I stumbled into a discussion on the topic with an old friend, and we ended up angry with each other, which I don’t recall EVER happening in the ~ 25 years we’d known each other. So I recognize that whatever I write, I might offend somebody. I hope not. The second point is that while most of the world seems to fall into two distinct opposing camps, either believing or disbelieving anthropogenic climate change, I find myself firmly in the middle, straddling the fence. I know humanity must have had some impact on climate, and I know climate is changing (as it always has, as clearly evidenced in the geological record), but I’m not convinced we’ve had a significant effect, and less convinced that the question of whether we have is even answerable through scientific investigation.

Anyway, this will be the first post in perhaps a few examining the topic of climate change, with an emphasis on trying to understand the human role in affecting climate.

DISCLAIMER – I admit to being a climate ignoramus. I had five years of geography classes in high school, and the teacher put a significant emphasis on weather (same teacher from grade 10 to 13, different teacher in grade 9). I was very interested at the time, and almost chose geography for university (instead of engineering), but alas that was 28 years ago, and I have had NO formal training in climate or weather since then. Only the same casual exposure we all get by experiencing the weather and reading about it in the news. So I claim no specific expertise.

My basic position is that climate, like weather, is a chaotic physical system, beyond deterministic understanding and prediction. Some systems are well behaved and predictable, even though they are governed by a large number of variables. Think about the movement of planets or other celestial bodies, or the tides. highly predictable, understandable, well behaved, stable systems.

By contrast, some systems are ill-behaved, wildly unpredictable, given to chaos, even though they might be governed by a similar number of variables. In this case, behaviour might be highly sensitive to very small (and possibly unmeasurable, undetectable, un-knowable) perturbations of the input parameters. In this case, even though behaviour might depend on a small number of variables that can be individually isolated, and the correlation between those variables and overall behaviour might be well understood, predictions would be impossible, since the system is unstable, reacting unpredictably according to small changes in individual (or combinations of) input parameters.

I will try to go over some of the things I’ve learned in a preliminary, naive exploration of climate science to better inform myself on the topic. This will likely take several posts over some period of time, between posts about actual work related interests. 🙂

Posted in Some very informal comments on climate | Leave a comment