Air circulation in deep fractures and the temperature field of an alpine rock slope


Department of Earth Sciences, Swiss Federal Institute of Technology (ETH), Zurich, Switzerland.



The subsurface temperature field of a rock slope is a key variable influencing both bedrock fracturing and slope stability. However, significant unknowns remain relating to the effect of air and water fracture flow, which can rapidly transmit temperature changes to appreciable depths. In this work, we analyze a unique set of temperature measurements from an alpine rock slope at ~2400 m a.s.l. in southern Switzerland. The monitored area encompasses part of an active slope instability above the village of Randa (VS) and is traversed by a network of open cracks, some of which have been traced to >80 m depth. We first describe distributed temperature measurements and borehole profiles, highlighting deep steady temperatures and different transient effects, and then use these data to approximate the conductive temperature field at the site. In a second step, we analyze the impact of air and water circulation in deep open fractures on the subsurface thermal field. On multiple visits to the study site in winter, we consistently noted the presence of warm air vents in the snowpack following the trace of deep tension cracks. Measurements showed that venting air changed temperature gradually from ~3 to 2 °C between December and May, which is similar to the rock temperature at around 50 m depth. Comparison with ambient air temperature suggests that winter conditions favor buoyancy-driven convective air flow in these fractures, which acts to cool the deep subsurface as the rock gives up heat to incoming air. The potential impact of this process on the local thermal field is revealed by a disturbed temperature profile in one borehole and transient signals observed at depths well below the thermal active layer. Seasonal water infiltration during snowmelt appears to have little impact on the temperature field in the monitored area. Copyright © 2011 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd.