The formation and failure of natural dams

Open-File Report 87-392




Of the numerous kinds of dams that form by natural processes, dams formed from landslides, glacial ice, and neoglacial moraines present the greatest threat to people and property. The most common types of mass movements that form landslide dams are rock and debris avalanches, rock and soil slumps and slides, and mud, debris, and earth flows. The most common initiation mechanisms for dam-forming landslides are excessive rainfall and snowmelt and earthquakes. Landslide dams can be classified into six categories based on their relation with the valley floor. Type I dams (11%) of the 81 landslide dams around the world that were classifed do not reach from one valley side to the other. Type II dams (44%) span the entire valley flood, occasionally depositing material high up on opposite valley sides. Type III dams (41%) move considerable distances both upstream and downstream from the landslide failure. Type IV dams (1%) are rare and involve the contemporaneous failure of material from both sides of a valley. Type V dams (1%) are also rare, and are created when a single landslide sends multiple tongues of debris into a valley forming two or more landslide dams in the same surfaces, that extend under the stream or valley and emerge on the opposite valley side. Many landslide dams fail shortly after formation. Overtopping is by far the most common cause of failure. Glacial ice dams can produce at least nine kinds of ice-dammed lakes. The most dangerous are lakes formed in main valleys dammed by tributary glaciers. Failure can occur by erosion of a drainage tunnel under or through the ice dam or by a channel over the ice dam. Cold polar ice dams generally drain supraglacially or marginally by downmelting of an outlet channel. Warmer temperate-ice dams tend to fail by sudden englacial or subglacial breaching and drainage. Late neoglacial moraine-dammed lakes are located in steep mountain areas affected by the advances and retreats of valley glaciers in the last several centuries. The most common reported failure mechanism is overtopping and breaching by a wave or series of waves in the lake, generated by icefalls, rockfalls, or snow or rock avalanches. Melting of ice-cores or frozen ground and piping and seepage are other possible failure mechanisms. (Lantz-PTT)

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USGS Numbered Series
The formation and failure of natural dams
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Open-File Report
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U.S. Geological Survey,
v, 39 p. :ill. ;28 cm.