Gravitational failure of sea cliffs eroded into weakly lithified sediment at several sites in California involves episodic stress-release fracturing and cantilevered block falls. The principal variables that influence the gravitational stability are tensional stresses generated during the release of horizontal confining stress and weakening of the sediment with increased saturation levels. Individual failures typically comprise less than a cubic meter of sediment, but large areas of a cliff face can be affected by sustained instability over a period of several days. Typically, only the outer meter or so of sediment is removed during a failure episode. In-place sediment saturation levels vary over time and space, generally being higher during the rainy season but moderate to high year-round. Laboratory direct-shear tests show that sediment cohesion decreases abruptly with increasing saturation level; the decrease is similar for all tested sediment if the cohesion is normalized by the maximum, dry-sediment cohesion. Large failures that extend over most or all of the height of the sea cliff are uncommon, but a few large wedge-shaped failures sometimes occur, as does separation of large blocks at sea cliff-gully intersections.
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Gravitational failure of sea cliffs in weakly lithified sediment