Significance of geomorphological and subsurface drainage controls on failures of peat-covered hillslopes triggered by extreme rainfall



On 19 September 2003, 40 landslides of 140–18 000 m3 volume occurred within 2·5 km2 on the slopes of Dooncarton Mountain (Republic of Ireland) during a storm that may have exceeded 90 mm within 90 minutes. The landslides were investigated to determine the reasons for such a high density of slope failures. All of the landslides were surveyed within four months, and nine of them were investigated in detail. The six largest landslides, all peat failures, accounted for 57% of the more than 100 000 m3 of material displaced during the event. A consistent sequence of superficial materials was found on the failed hillslopes, including an extensive iron pan at the base of a buried soil horizon 0·3 m below the base of the peat. Morphologically, almost all of the landslides occurred on steep planar slopes or around sharp convexities, with the latter failures developing retrogressively upslope. The only significant relationship found from analysis of 371 subsurface pipes and 142 seepage cracks (defined here as contiguous fissures conducting concentrated subsurface flow) across all the failures was that the thinner the peat cover, the deeper the pipes and seepage cracks occurred below the base of peat. It is concluded that most of the landslides were probably caused by a combination of excess water pressures in the buried soil horizon and the thinner overburden of peat or peaty soil associated with the steeper slope segments. Pipes and seepage cracks formed on the iron pan probably existed prior to the failure event and may have contributed to the high water pressures as rainwater inputs exceeded their discharge capacities. One large peat slide was probably triggered by excess water pressures developed within and between artificial tine cuts. The properties of the blanket peat were generally of little consequence in the occurrence of the landslides, but relict desiccation cracks and other structural weaknesses through the peat mass were probably highly significant. Although several aspects of the peat failures correspond to previously published examples, the context of these failures in terms of the topography and upland catena is distinctive. Copyright © 2007 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd.