Slump and Rockslide


Slump is an example of a rotational slide and refers to the downward sliding of a mass of rock or unconsolidated material moving as a unit along a curved surface (Figure 1). Usually the slumped material does not travel spectacularly fast, and it does not travel very far.

Figure 1. Slump occurs when material slips downslope en masse along a curved surface of rupture.

Slump is a common form of mass wasting, especially in thick accumulations of cohesive materials such as clay. The ruptured surface is characteristically spoon shaped and concave upward or outward. As the movement occurs, a crescent-shaped scarp is created at the head, and the block’s upper surface is sometimes tilted backward. Although slump may involve a single mass, it often consists of multiple blocks. Sometimes water collects between the base of the scarp and the top of the tilted block. As this water percolates downward along the surface of rupture, it may promote further instability and additional movement. Slump commonly occurs because a slope has been oversteepened. The material on the upper portion of a slope is held in place by the material at the bottom of the slope. As this anchoring material at the base is removed, the material above is made unstable and reacts to the pull of gravity. One relatively common example is a valley wall that becomes oversteepened by a meandering river. The photo in Figure 2 provides an example in which a coastal cliff has been undercut by wave action at its base. Slumping may also occur when a slope is overloaded, causing internal stress on the material below. This type of slump often occurs where weak, clay-rich material underlies layers of stronger, more resistant rock such as sandstone. The seepage of water through the upper layers reduces the strength of the clay below, resulting in slope failure.

Figure 2. Slump at Point Fermin, California


Rockslides are translational slides that occur when blocks of bedrock break loose and slide down a slope (Figure 3). If the material involved is largely unconsolidated, the term debris slide is used instead. Such events are among the fastest and most destructive mass movements.

Figure 3. Rockslide

Usually rockslides take place in a geologic setting where the rock strata are inclined, or where joints and fractures exist parallel to the slope. When such a rock unit is undercut at the base of the slope, it loses support, and the rock eventually gives way. Sometimes the rockslide is triggered when rain or melting snow lubricates the underlying surface to the point that friction is no longer sufficient to hold the rock unit in place.
As a result, rockslides tend to be most common during the spring, when heavy rains and melting snow are most prevalent. As mentioned earlier, earthquakes can trigger rockslides and other mass movements. There are many wellknown examples. The 1811 earthquake at New Madrid, Missouri, caused slides in an area of more than 13,000 square kilometers (5000 square miles) along the Mississippi River valley. On August 17, 1959, a severe earthquake west of Yellowstone National Park triggered a massive slide in the canyon of the Madison River in southwestern Montana. In a matter of moments, an estimated 27 million cubic meters of rock, soil, and trees slid into the canyon.
The debris dammed the river and buried a campground and highway. More than 20 unsuspecting campers perished. Heavy rains and melting snow, rather than an earthquake, triggered another major rockslide in the Yellowstone region. Not far from the site of the Madison Canyon slide, the legendary Gros Ventre rockslide occurred 34 years earlier.
The Gros Ventre River flows west from the northernmost part of the Wind River Range in northwestern Wyoming, through Grand Teton National Park, and eventually empties into the Snake River. On June 23, 1925, a massive rockslide took place in its valley, just east of the small town of Kelly. In the span of only minutes, a great mass of sandstone, shale, and soil crashed down the south side of the valley, carrying with it a dense pine forest. The volume of debris, estimated at 38 million cubic meters (50 million cubic yards), created a dam on the Gros Ventre River 70 meters (230 feet) high.
Because the river was completely blocked, a lake was formed. It filled so quickly that a house that had been 18 meters (60 feet) above the river was floated off its foundation 18 hours after the slide. In 1927, the lake overflowed the dam, partially draining the lake and resulting in a devastating flood downstream.
Why did the Gros Ventre rockslide take place?
Figure 4 shows a diagrammatic cross-sectional view of the geology of the valley. Notice that (1) the sedimentary strata in this area dip (tilt) 15 to 21 degrees; (2) underlying the bed of sandstone is a relatively thin layer of clay; and (3) at the bottom of the valley, the river had cut through much of the sandstone layer.

Figure 4. This massive slide occurred on June 23, 1925, just east of the small town of Kelly, Wyoming.

During the spring of 1925, water from heavy rains and melting snow seeped through the sandstone, saturating the clay below. Because much of the sandstone layer had been cut through by the Gros Ventre River, the layer had virtually no support at the bottom of the slope. Eventually the sandstone could no longer hold its position on the wetted clay, and gravity pulled the mass down the side of the valley. The circumstances at this location were such that the event was inevitable.

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