Rock-avalanche dynamics revealed by large-scale field mapping and seismic signals at a highly mobile avalanche in the West Salt Creek valley, western Colorado

Geosphere
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Abstract

On 25 May 2014, a rain-on-snow–induced rock avalanche occurred in the West Salt Creek valley on the northern flank of Grand Mesa in western Colorado (United States). The avalanche mobilized from a preexisting rock slide in the Green River Formation and traveled 4.6 km down the confined valley, killing three people. The avalanche was rare for the contiguous United States because of its large size (54.5 Mm3) and high mobility (height/length = 0.14). To understand the avalanche failure sequence, mechanisms, and mobility, we conducted a forensic analysis using large-scale (1:1000) structural mapping and seismic data. We used high-resolution, unmanned aircraft system imagery as a base for field mapping, and analyzed seismic data from 22 broadband stations (distances < 656 km from the rock-slide source area) and one short-period network. We inverted broadband data to derive a time series of forces that the avalanche exerted on the earth and tracked these forces using curves in the avalanche path. Our results revealed that the rock avalanche was a cascade of landslide events, rather than a single massive failure. The sequence began with an early morning landslide/debris flow that started ∼10 h before the main avalanche. The main avalanche lasted ∼3.5 min and traveled at average velocities ranging from 15 to 36 m/s. For at least two hours after the avalanche ceased movement, a central, hummock-rich core continued to move slowly. Since 25 May 2014, numerous shallow landslides, rock slides, and rock falls have created new structures and modified avalanche topography. Mobility of the main avalanche and central core was likely enhanced by valley floor material that liquefied from undrained loading by the overriding avalanche. Although the base was likely at least partially liquefied, our mapping indicates that the overriding avalanche internally deformed predominantly by sliding along discrete shear surfaces in material that was nearly dry and had substantial frictional strength. These results indicate that the West Salt Creek avalanche, and probably other long-traveled avalanches, could be modeled as two layers: a thin, liquefied basal layer, and a thicker and stronger overriding layer.

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Additional publication details

Publication type Article
Publication Subtype Journal Article
Title Rock-avalanche dynamics revealed by large-scale field mapping and seismic signals at a highly mobile avalanche in the West Salt Creek valley, western Colorado
Series title Geosphere
DOI 10.1130/GES01265.1
Volume 12
Issue 2
Year Published 2016
Language English
Publisher Geological Society of America
Contributing office(s) Geologic Hazards Science Center
Description 25 p.
First page 607
Last page 631
Country United States
State Colorado
Other Geospatial West Salt Creek