Water, Energy, and Biogeochemical Budgets (WEBB) Program

The role of soil processes in determining mechanisms of slope failure and hillslope development in a humid-tropical forest, eastern Puerto Rico

Andrew Simon1, Matthew C. Larsen2, and Cliff R. Hupp3

1U.S. Geological Survey, Cascades Volcano Observatory, 5400 MacArthur Blvd., Vancouver, WA, 98661, USA

2 U.S. Geological Survey, GSA Center, Suite 400-15, 651 Federal Drive, Guaynabo, Puerto Rico, 00965-5703, USA

3U.S. Geological Survey, National Center, MS 430, Reston, VA, 22092, USA


Translational failures, with associated downslope earthflow components and shallow slides, appear to be the preliminary mechanism of hillslope denudation in the humid tropical forests of the mountains of eastern Puerto Rico. In-situ weathering of quartz diorite and marine-deposited volcaniclastics produces residual soil (saprolite; up to 21 m deep) weathered rock profiles. Discontinuous zones of contrasting density and permeability particularly in quartz-diorite slopes at 0.5 m, and between 3 and 7 m, create both pathways and impedances for water that can result in excess pore pressures and ultimately, aid in determining the location of failure planes and magnitudes of slope failures. In combination with relict fractures which create planes of weakness within the saprolite, and the potential significance of tensile stresses in the upper zone of saprolite (hypothesized to be caused by subsurface soil creep), shear failure can then occur during or after periods of heavy rainfall.

Results of in-situ shear-strength testing show negative y-intercepts on the derived Mohr Coulomb failure envelopes (approrimately 50% of all tests) that are interpreted as apparent tensile stresses. Observation of tension cracks 1-2 m deep support the test data. Subsurface soil creep can cause extension of the soil and the development of tensile stresses along upper-slope segments. Shear-strength data support this hypothesis for both geologic types. Apparent values of maximum and mean tensile stress are greatest along upper slopes (l6.5 and 6.29 kPa). Previously documented maximum rates of downslope movement coincided with local minima of shear strength, and the shear-strength minimum for all tests was located near 0.5 m below land surface, the shallow zone of contrasting permeahilities. These results mdicate that subsurface soil creep, a slow semi-continuous process, may exert a profound influence on rapid, shallow slope failures in saprolitic soils.

Data indicate that cove slopes in quartz diorite tend to be the most unstable when saturation levels reach 75%. Deep failures (7 m deep ) appear the most critical but not the most frequent because pore pressure build-up will occur more rapidly in the upper perched zone of translocated clays before reaching the lower zone between 3 and 7 m. Frequent shallow failures could rednce the probability of deeper failures by removing overburden and reducing shear stress at depth. Deep failures are more likely to result from storm events of great duration and intensity.

Sixty-six 'naturally occurring' and more than 100 'road-related' landslides were mapped. Forest elevations exceed 1000 m, but the majority of these failures were found between 600 and 800 m in elevation. This appears to be the area where there is sufficient concentration of subsurface water to result in excess pore pressures. The high percentage of slope failures in the 600-800-m range, relative to the percentage at higher elevations, suggests that differences in soil-water processes are responsible for the form of these mountain slopes. Steep linear segments are maintained at higher elevations. Slope angle are reduced in the 600-800-m range by frequent shallow slides, creating a largely concave surface. In combination, slope segments ahove 800 m, and those between 600 and 800 m, produce the characteristic form of the mountains of eastern Puerto Rico.

Simon, Andrew, Larsen, M. C., and Hupp, C. R., 1990, The role of soil processes in determining mechanisms of slope failure and hillslope development in a humid-tropical forest: eastern Puerto Rico, in Kneuper, P.L.K., and McFadden, L. D., eds., Soils and Landscape evolution: Geomorphology, v. 3, p. 263-286.

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