Gravity-driven groundwater flow and slope failure potential: 2. Effects of slope morphology, material properties, and hydraulic heterogeneity


  • Mark E. Reid,

  • Richard M. Iverson


Hillslope morphology, material properties, and hydraulic heterogeneities influence the role of groundwater flow in provoking slope instability. We evaluate these influences quantitatively by employing the elastic effective stress model and Coulomb failure potential concept described in our companion paper (Iverson and Reid, this issue). Sensitivity analyses show that of four dimensionless quantities that control model results (i.e., Poisson's ratio, porosity, topographic profile, and hydraulic conductivity contrast), slope profiles and hydraulic conductivity contrasts have the most pronounced and diverse effects on groundwater seepage forces, effective stresses, and slope failure potentials. Gravity-driven groundwater flow strongly influences the shape of equilibrium hillslopes, which we define as those with uniform near-surface failure potentials. For homogeneous slopes with no groundwater flow, equilibrium hillslope profiles are straight; but with gravity-driven flow, equilibrium profiles are concave or convex-concave, and the largest failure potentials exist near the bases of convex slopes. In heterogeneous slopes, relatively slight hydraulic conductivity contrasts of less than 1 order of magnitude markedly affect the seepage force field and slope failure potential. Maximum effects occur if conductivity contrasts are of four orders of magnitude or more, and large hydraulic gradients commonly result in particularly large failure potentials just upslope from where low-conductivity layers intersect the ground surface.