Forensic Analysis of the May 2014 West Salt Creek Rock Avalanche in Western Colorado
Wednesday, 16 December 2015: 17:30
309 (Moscone South)
The rain-on-snow induced West Salt Creek rock avalanche occurred on May 25, 2014 on the northern flank of Grand Mesa. The avalanche was rare for the contiguous U.S. because of its large size (59 M m3) and high mobility (Length/Height=7.2). 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 (UAS) imagery as a base for our field mapping and analyzed seismic data from 22 broadband stations (distances <656 km) 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 a landslide/debris flow that started about 10 hours before the main avalanche. The main avalanche lasted just over 3 minutes 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, strike-slip bound core continued to move slowly. Following movement of the core, numerous shallow landslides, rock slides, and rock falls created new structures and modified topography. Mobility of the main avalanche and central core were 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 liquefied basal layer; and a thicker and stronger overriding layer.