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Erosional power in the Swiss Alps: characterization of slope failure in the Illgraben


G. Bennett, Institute of Environmental Engineering, ETH Zurich, Wolfgang-Paulistrasse 15, CH-8093, Switzerland. E-mail:


Landslides and rockfalls are key geomorphic processes in mountain basins. Their quantification and characterization are critical for understanding the processes of slope failure and their contributions to erosion and landscape evolution. We used digital photogrammetry to produce a multi-temporal record of erosion (1963–2005) of a rock slope at the head of the Illgraben, a very active catchment prone to debris flows in Switzerland. Slope failures affect 70% of the study slope and erode the slope at an average rate of 0.39 ± 0.03 m yr¯¹.

The analysis of individual slope failures yielded an inventory of ~2500 failures ranging over 6 orders of magnitude in volume, despite the small slope area and short study period. The slope failures form a characteristic magnitude–frequency distribution with a rollover and a power-law tail between ~200 m³ and 1.6 × 106 m³ with an exponent of 1.65. Slope failure volume scales with area as a power law with an exponent of 1.1. Both values are low for studies of bedrock landslides and rockfall and result from the highly fractured and weathered state of the quartzitic bedrock.

Our data suggest that the magnitude–frequency distribution is the result of two separate slope failure processes. Type (1) failures are frequent, small slides and slumps within the weathered layer of highly fractured rock and loose sediment, and make up the rollover. Type (2) failures are less frequent and larger rockslides and rockfalls within the internal bedded and fractured slope along pre-determined potential failure surfaces, and make up the power-law tail.

Rockslides and rockfalls of high magnitude and relatively low frequency make up 99% of the total failure volume and are thus responsible for the high erosion rate. They are also significant in the context of landscape evolution as they occur on slopes above 45° and limit the relief of the slope. Copyright © 2012 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd.