Landslide Mobility and Hazards: A Geophysical Overview of the Oso Disaster
Friday, 19 December 2014: 1:40 PM
Some landslides move slowly or intermittently downslope, whereas others accelerate catastrophically and run out long distances across flat or gently sloping terrain. Seldom does landsliding of one type transition abruptly into the other, however, and seldom are the consequences more severe than at a site near Oso, Washington, where more than 40 fatalities resulted from a high-speed, long-runout landslide on 22 March 2014. Our interpretations of seismic data inversions and eyewitness accounts indicate that the Oso event began gradually, with remobilization of old landslide deposits that were unusually wet due to months of exceptional precipitation. For about 50 s, relatively slow downslope motion of these deposits withdrew support from a bluff above them, and then the bluff collapsed abruptly. This collapse radiated strong broadband seismic energy and rapidly loaded the old landslide material downslope. We infer that this rapid loading of previously dilated landslide debris caused contractive deformation, widespread liquefaction, and runaway acceleration. The resulting debris avalanche flow (DAF) had a volume of 8 ×106 m3and a fahrböschung (H/L ratio) of 0.106, making it exceptionally mobile for a landslide of its size. The leading edge of the Oso DAF may have gained mobility by entraining water as it displaced the adjacent Stillaguamish River and by liquefying wet floodplain sediments as it overran them, and it formed distal deposits that resembled those of many wood-freighted debris flows. The transition from relatively slow landslide motion (which had occurred intermittently for decades at the Oso site) to high-speed motion and long runout appears to have been very sensitive to contingencies. Our simulations of the Oso event using a new numerical model (D-Claw) show that small differences in water-saturated porosity (n) were sufficient to cause divergent landslide behaviors. In a case with n = 0.38, D-Claw predicts runaway liquefaction and high-speed runout much like that observed at Oso, and in a case with n = 0.36, it predicts much slower landsliding that ceases after only about 100 m of motion. This behavioral bifurcation has fundamental physical importance as well as large ramifications for assessment of landslide hazards.