Landslide Hazards Program

U.S. Geological Survey
Scientific Investigations Report 2007-5092

Modeling 3-D Slope Stability of Coastal Bluffs Using 3-D Ground-Water Flow, Southwestern Seattle, Washington

By Dianne L. Brien and Mark E. Reid


Cover shows two graphics. Background, photo of channel with boats and bridge; inset, photo of tripod holding measuring equipment being lowered into the water
Aerial photograph of a deep-seated landslide (Photograph by Leonard Palmer, FEMA, 1997.)

Landslides are a common problem on coastal bluffs throughout the world. Along the coastal bluffs of the Puget Sound in Seattle, Washington, landslides range from small, shallow failures to large, deep-seated landslides. Landslides of all types can pose hazards to human lives and property, but deep-seated landslides are of significant concern because their large areal extent can cause extensive property damage. Although many geomorphic processes shape the coastal bluffs of Seattle, we focus on large (greater than 3,000 m3), deepseated, rotational landslides that occur on the steep bluffs along Puget Sound. Many of these larger failures occur in advance outwash deposits of the Vashon Drift (Qva); some failures extend into the underlying Lawton Clay Member of the Vashon Drift (Qvlc).

The slope stability of coastal bluffs is controlled by the interplay of three-dimensional (3-D) variations in gravitational stress, strength, and pore-water pressure. We assess 3-D slope-stability using SCOOPS (Reid and others, 2000), a computer program that allows us to search a high-resolution digital-elevation model (DEM) to quantify the relative stability of all parts of the landscape by computing the stability and volume of thousands of potential spherical failures. SCOOPS incorporates topography, 3-D strength variations, and 3-D pore pressures.

Initially, we use our 3-D analysis methods to examine the effects of topography and geology by using heterogeneous material properties, as defined by stratigraphy, without pore pressures. In this scenario, the least-stable areas are located on the steepest slopes, commonly in Qva or Qvlc. However, these locations do not agree well with observations of deep-seated landslides. Historically, both shallow colluvial landslides and deep-seated landslides have been observed near the contact between Qva and Qvlc, and commonly occur in Qva. The low hydraulic conductivity of Qvlc impedes ground-water flow, resulting in elevated pore pressures at the base of Qva, thereby increasing the potential for landslides. Our analysis simulates the ground-water flow using the results of a 3-D ground-water flow model, MODFLOW-2000 (Harbaugh and others, 2000), to generate a 3-D pore-pressure field. Areas of elevated pore pressure reflect the influence of a perched ground-water table in Qva, as well as ground-water convergence in the coastal re-entrants. We obtain a realistic model of deep-seated landsliding by combining 3-D pore pressures with heterogeneous strength properties. The results show the least-stable areas where pore pressures are locally elevated in Qva. We compare our results with records of past landslides. The predicted leaststable areas include two historically active deep-seated landslides and areas adjacent to these landslides.

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For questions about the content of this report, contact Dianne Brien

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