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Development and Applications of Debris Mobility Modelling

in Assessment of Natural Terrain Landslide Hazards

J.S.H. Kwan, T.K.C. Wong & F.W.Y. Ko
Geotechnical Engineering Office, Civil Engineering and Development Department,
Government of the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region

Abstract: The subject of debris mobility has long been one of the key areas of development in slope engineering practice in Hong Kong.
Back in 1962, Professor Lumb in an early publication acknowledged that consequences of slope failures can be devastating if debris
avalanches down the slope reaching populated areas. Research in debris mobility has always been a key subject in landslide risk
assessment and mitigation. In the 1990s, debris mobility of man-made slope failures has been studied using travel angles of historical
landslides as the key debris mobility indicator. This empirical debris mobility model has proved to be useful in estimating runout
distances of landslides on man-made slopes. Since early 1990s, there has been increasing concern on the potential hazards of natural
terrain landslides to urban development amid its rapid expansion into steep natural hillsides. The travel angle approach, however,
does not model adequately the runout behaviours of natural terrain landslides on sloping terrain, in particular, channelised flows and
landslides of long runout distances. Over the years, it has been demonstrated that numerical modelling of landslide dynamics is an
effective tool to not only estimating runout distances but also studying runout behaviours, such as the debris influence zone, runout
velocity and flow depth. This paper reviews the technological advancement made in debris mobility modelling over the past decades,
and presents the potential applications of the latest development of debris mobility modelling in assessing of natural terrain landslide


Landslide is a common form of natural hazards in Hong Kong

that can cause significant loss-of-life and socio-economical
consequences. The landslide risk to the community is largely a
combined result of three causal factors: the sub-tropical climate,
the steep hilly terrain and the high density population. Since
its formation in 1977, the Geotechnical Engineering Office
(GEO) (named Geotechnical Control Office before 1991) has
focused on landslides from man-made slopes amid the rapid
urban development that entailed extensive site formation works
for building and infrastructure developments.
development continued to expand in the past decade and
gradually encroached on natural hillsides. The retreat of
natural hillside boundaries for urban development has led to an
increase in landslide risk from natural terrain. Since the early
2000s, reducing landslide risk from natural terrain has become
one of the main issues under the GEOs landslide risk
management framework and a landslide risk management
Travel Angle ()


- Cut - sliding
- Fill - liquefaction

- Cut - washout
- Fill - sliding

- Fill - washout

- Retaining wall


Landslide Volume (m3)


Fig. 1. Relationship between travel angle and landslide

volume for selected man-made slope failures in Hong Kong.

strategy has since been developed to deal with natural terrain

landslide hazards (Wong & Ho 2006).
Irrespective of the nature of the landslide problem, the
subject of debris mobility has been one of the key areas of
development in slope engineering practice in Hong Kong.
Back in 1962, Lumb (1980) acknowledged that consequences of
slope failures can be devastating if debris avalanches down the
slope reaching populated areas. Over the years, research in
debris mobility has always been a key subject in landslide risk
assessment and mitigation, and much development has been
achieved in both the analytical skills and applications for
dealing with landslide risk from natural hillsides.



The earliest approach to assessing debris mobility of natural

terrain landslides has largely been based on the experience
gained from the use of empirical method in estimating runout
distances of landslides on man-made slopes.
In the 1990s, debris mobility of man-made slope failures has
been studied using travel angles of historical landslides as the
key debris mobility indicator. This empirical model was based
on historical landslide data with due regard to the mechanisms
of failures and modes of debris movement (Fig. 1). With the
comprehensive database of landslides on man-made slopes,
which contain quality landslide data obtained from field
inspections and aerial photograph interpretation, the empirical
approach has proved to be useful in estimating landslide runout
Amid the growing concern on the potential hazards of natural
terrain landslides in the 1990s, empirical methods, initially
based on the concept of travel angle and later evolved into other
enhanced formulations, have been developed and applied to

is defined as the ground slope angle at the distal end of a

landslide trail. Choi et al (2003) examined the toe slope
angle and the distance that landslide debris has travelled
beyond 15 ground slope for more than 50 m of large
(scar > 15 m wide) recent natural terrain landslides in the
Natural Terrain Landslide Inventory (NTLI). The results
show that only about 15% of the landslides in the NTLI

assess debris mobility of natural terrain landslides.

(a) The Travel Angle Method
In this paper, the term travel angle (Cruden & Varnes
1996) has the same meaning as the term Fahrbschung
defined by Albert Heim in his book published in 1932 (Hsu
1978) and reach angle (Corominas 1996). This is the
angle of the line connecting the head of the landslide
source to the distal end of the displaced mass (Corominas
1996) (Fig. 2). The term is similar to other terms like
apparent angle of friction, equivalent coefficient of
friction and average coefficient of friction but these
terms are derived from the line linking the centres of
gravity of the landslide source and the displaced material.
One of the first detailed studies on the travel angles of
landslides in Hong Kong was described in Wong & Ho
(1996). The study was carried out on landslides which
occurred on the Lantau Island on 5 November 1993 at soil
cut slopes alongside roads and catchwaters, and of which
accurate data on the profile and travel distance of debris
was available. Wong et al (1998) then applied the same
method on natural terrain landslides that occurred on the
Lantau Island in the same rainstorm. It was observed that
the travel angles of landslides tend to decrease (i.e.
mobility of landslides increase) with an increase in debris
volumes and that the travel angles of landslides are
critically dependent on the failure mechanisms and modes
of debris movement.
Lo (2000) summarised the
distribution of the travel angles for different types of
landslides in Hong Kong (Fig. 3).
Lau & Woods (1997) mentioned a limitation of the
travel angle method for natural terrain landslides. It is
noted that the accuracy of estimating runout distance (d) by
the travel angle method decreases rapidly when the slope
angle at the final point of debris deposition approaches the
angle of reach of the landslide. This limitation is
particularly significant when the method is applied to steep
natural terrain, given the same degree of change in the
angles of reach () (Fig. 4). Furthermore, the travel angle
method does not take the effects of terrain characteristics
on debris mobility into consideration. For example,
different terrain profiles may lead to debris having different
runout behaviours, and therefore different mobility, while
their respective travel angles may stay the same. The
complex terrain characteristics of typical natural hillsides in
Hong Kong have therefore rendered the use of the travel
angle method not quite appropriate.
(b) The Toe Slope Angle Method
The toe slope angle is another parameter that has been
studied in Hong Kong in the late 1990s for assessing debris
mobility of natural terrain landslides. The toe slope angle

Travel Angle ()

Fig. 2. Definition of travel angle.


Total Debris Volume (m3)


Fig. 3. Distribution of the travel angles for different types of

landslides in Hong Kong.

Fig. 4. Limitation of travel angle method.

Distance Downslope of 15 Gradient (m)

Travel Angle (degree)

Fig. 5. Empirical damage zoning based on historical debris runout data.
(total = 560) reached ground with a slope angle less than
15 (or have toe slope angles smaller than 15) and only
two of them have travelled more than 50 m beyond 15
sloping ground. Based on this study, it can be observed
that natural terrain landslides in Hong Kong do not usually
travel beyond ground with a slope angle less than 15 and
even fewer travel more than 50 m beyond 15 sloping
ground. This suggests that the 50 m zone provides an
adequate buffer area for debris deposition in the majority of
the cases of natural terrain landslides in Hong Kong. The
small portion of landslides with long runout distances is
mostly associated with very mobile channelised debris
flows. The findings serve as a rough appreciation of the
typical landslide debris mobility in Hong Kong. The
method has also been incorporated in the screening criteria
currently adopted by the GEO for screening new
development sites for natural terrain hazard studies.
(c) Hybrid Method Using Travel Angle and Travel Distance
Because of the limitations of the travel angle method
described above, an additional parameter, travel distance
beyond 15 sloping ground, has been incorporated in the
model to account for the effects of terrain characteristics
along credible flow paths on debris mobility.
empirical classification of proximity zones of facility at
risk of natural terrain landslide hazards based on the travel
angles and the travel distances beyond 15 sloping ground
of the historical landslides in the NTLI has been developed.
This has been applied in the consequence model of the
global quantitative risk assessment on natural terrain
landslides in Hong Kong. (Wong et al 2004; Wong & Ho
2006) (Fig. 5).
The development of the empirical approaches to assessing
debris mobility of natural terrain landslides has provided
geotechnical practitioners in Hong Kong with useful tools in
estimating probable runout distances of natural terrain landslides
and potential risk to population. There is however practical
limitation of the empirical methods they cannot provide

information on the runout behaviour of landslide debris in

motion. Runout behaviour may include debris velocity, debris
thickness and lateral spread of debris, which are critical
information for systematic study of landslide behaviours,
determination of debris influence zone and engineering design
of mitigation measures against landslide hazards.


In 1998, the GEO commissioned a pilot study to examine the

applicability of numerical models for prediction of landslide
runout distance. Under the pilot study, 20 natural terrain
landslides in Hong Kong were back-analysed using the model
DAN developed by Hungr (1995). DAN is a numerical model
capable of simulating debris motions in a rectangular channel.
Hungr adopted a Lagrangian finite difference scheme, which
was first proposed by Savage & Hutter (1991), to develop the
DAN model in which debris is divided into a series of vertical
slices. Considering debris as an equivalent fluid, equations of
motions were set up for each of the elements. With this, the
Lagrangian finite difference scheme calculates the velocities of
the element at every time step of the time-stepping calculating
process and the elements advance to their new positions based
on the calculated velocities. The model was demonstrated to
provide satisfactory back-analysis results for the natural terrain
landslides using Vollemy model to describe the debris rheology
(Ayotte & Hungr 1998).
In the DAN model, the cross-section of a flow channel is
assumed to be rectangular with frictionless sides. However, for
natural terrain landslides which usually travel on complex
morphology such as along topographic depressions or natural
drainage lines, flow channels with trapezoidal shaped
cross-section is considered to be a more reasonable assumption.
The DAN model has subsequently been improved in this respect
to better simulate the actual conditions of natural terrain
landslides in motion. This enhancement has been incorporated

Fig.6. 3-D debris runout modelling.

in the Debris Mobility Model (DMM) by the GEO (Kwan &
Sun 2006). The DMM removes the assumption of rectangular
channel and facilitates the numerical calculation based on
trapezoid channel. It also calculates debris depth and top width
based on an input of the geometry of a given trapezoid channel.
The input entries involve heavily geo-informatics content, and
because of this, the GEO has taken further initiative to embed
the DMM onto the Geographic Information System platform in
an effort to streamline the analysis process (Fig. 6).
Local geotechnical practitioners have also proactively
contributed to the development of numerical prediction of debris
mobility. For example, Manusell Geotechnical Services Ltd.
(MGS) had developed the numerical package DebriFlo (MGS
2001). Similar to the DAN and DMM, DebriFlo simulates
one-dimensional debris motion in a flow channel. It solves the
Leading Edge Equations that describes the momentum
balance of debris front as proposed by Takahashi & Yoshida
DebriFlo also takes into account the effect of
super-elevation, which is often encountered when the debris
passes bends, in the analysis process.
Despite their successful applications in debris runout
calculation, the one-dimensional models suffer some major
limitations relating to (i) the requirement of a pre-defined
channel alignment (i.e. the runout path) as an input for
simulation and (ii) the incapability of predicting lateral spread of
debris flows. Researchers in Hong Kong played an important
role in the advancement of numerical modelling of debris
mobility in this aspect. Chen (1999) developed a Lagrangian
model for simulation of three-dimensional debris motions. In
the model, debris is considered as composing an array of
vertical columns. The spreading behaviours of the debris can
be simulated by computing the motions of each of these debris
columns. The model has been used to simulate a number of
notable large-scale natural terrain landslides in Hong Kong, such
as the Fei Tsui Road and the Shum Wan Landslides occurred in
1995 (Chen & Lee 2000).
Chens model, however, requires connectivity between debris
columns during simulation. This connectivity requirement
limits its application to single continuous debris trails only.
Where there is complex terrain morphology resulting in
bifurcated debris trails, such as the 2000 Tsing Shan Debris
Flow (King 2001) (Fig. 7), a more versatile numerical technique

is necessary. In this respect, the GEO in 2004 developed a

robust three-dimensional numerical model for simulating debris
motions over irregular and complex terrain profiles.
The three-dimensional debris mobility model, 3D-DMM,
uses an alternative numerical scheme called Particle-In-Cell
(PIC). PIC was first developed for computational fluid
dynamics (Harlow 1988). The method was then adopted in
numerical simulations of deformations of elastic-plastic
materials (Sulsky et al 1995) and explosions under water
(Liu & Liu 2003). A simplified PIC scheme was used to study
the formation of alluvial fan by Wang et al (1997).
PIC adopts particle representation of the deformable
materials concerned and calculates the properties of the
materials, such as strain and stress, based on the Eulerian
technique. The terrain on which the landslide initiates and
flows is divided into an array of cells and the landslide debris is
represented by a number of non-interacting particles. When
the simulation starts, each cell on which the landslide debris
initiates contains non-interacting particles, the number of which
depends on the dimensions of the landslide. With the number
of particles in the cells, the debris depths are determined and
equations of motions are set up for calculation of debris
velocities at these cells. Having calculated the velocities, the
particles are advanced to new positions based on the topology of
the terrain. With a time-stepping algorithm, the calculation
steps are repeated and the debris motions simulated. The
3D-DMM has been used in the back-analysis of some notable
landslide incidents in Hong Kong. The simulation for the
Shum Wan Landslide that occurred in 1995 (GEO 1996) gives a
reasonable representation of the actual situations (Ko & Kwan
2006). Another simulation for debris flowing round a circular
obstruction on a flat plane is shown in Fig. 8. It is observed

Fig. 7. The 2000 Tsing Shan Debris Flow.

Fig. 8. Simulation of frictional materials flowing down a channel obstructed by a hump.

that PIC inherits the advantage of particle method that permits

simulations of material flows of large deformation, while the
Eulerian technique allows fast calculations.


The DMM simulates debris motions along credible flow paths

on hillsides and calculates at the same time flow indicators, such
as runout velocity and flow depth. With the use of 3D-DMM,
visualisation of flow motion is also possible for determination of
debris influence zone. This choice of functions of the DMM
allows for a variety of applications in assessing natural terrain
landslide hazards. Two potential applications are given below
to demonstrate the usefulness of the analytical skills.
(a) Site-Specific Application in Vulnerability Assessment
The DMM can be applied to assess vulnerability factors
that involve a combined use of numerical simulation of
debris motions and the probabilistic material strength
concept (Ko & Kwan 2006).
Given a landslide of a particular volume hitting a facility,
a numerical simulation of the debris motions takes terrain
characteristics, debris mobility and spatial setting of the
facility into consideration to determine the magnitude of
the landslide impact on the facility. It predicts the runout
behaviour of the landslide and the extent of the landslide
influence zone. The attributes that form the vulnerability
factor, like the proximity to the landslide source, the spatial
setting of the facility and the runout characteristics of the
landslide, are implicitly accounted for in the numerical

simulation, the outcome of which would be reflected in the

magnitude of the landslide impact on the facility.
The magnitude of the landslide impact on the facility
adversely affects the structural stability of the facility and
the extent of which depends on the facility type. The
more robust the structure is, the higher the chance it could
withstand the landslide debris, i.e. higher degree of
protection to the occupants inside, and therefore, lower
likelihood of loss-of-life.
The probabilistic material
strength concept applied to bending moment capacities of
walls (Fig. 9) is therefore used at this stage to assess the
likelihood of the facility that fails to resist the landslide
impact, which is assumed to equate to the probability of
loss-of-life, i.e. the vulnerability factor.
This analytical method has been applied to back-analyse
two landslides, the Tong Fuk Landslide occurred in 1993
and the Sham Tseng San Tsuen Landslide in 1999. In
both cases, the vulnerability factors obtained based on the
method are consistent with the observations made on site
after the mishaps.
(b) Probabilistic Approach in Assessing Debris Mobility
The DMM can also be applied to predict debris runout
behaviours for hillside catchments in a probabilistic
framework based on the analysis and use of probabilistic
distribution of DMMs runout parameters, i.e. friction angle
and turbulence coefficient. Such parameters may be
correlated with attributes characterising landslides and
morphology of hillside catchments, as runout behaviours of
a landslide are controlled by, inter alia, the morphology of
the hillside catchment within which the landslide occurs.

Probability of
material strength
less than L

(PDF) of

Material Strength (s)

Fig. 9. Probability density function of material strength.

It is a hybrid approach making use of both empirical and
analytical methods. With the use of numerical modelling,
about 150 natural terrain landslides with long runout
distances are back-analysed to obtain their runout
parameters. Based on the morphological parameters, i.e.
catchment plan area, maximum height and average slope
gradient, of the hillside catchments within which the
landslides have occurred, the hillside catchments may be
categorised into different sizes, e.g. very large, large,
medium and small (Wong et al 2004). For each
category of the hillside catchments, a probabilistic
distribution of the runout parameters of the historical
landslides that have occurred in that category of the hillside
catchments can be developed. There would be, in the end,
typical probabilistic distributions of runout parameters for
different categories of hillside catchments.
probabilistic distributions may be applied to predict debris
runout behaviours for other hillside catchments in Hong
This framework provides a means for prediction of
runout behaviours of landslides for any given size of
hillside catchment. With further calibration exercises and
benchmarking tests, there is prospect that the framework
can be developed into an effective tool for assessment of
debris mobility and quantification of landslide risk.

inter-behaviours of debris flows and flexible barriers on

impact. This has in turn limited the capability in
evaluating the use of flexible barriers in resisting landslide
debris/flows. With the advance of numerical modelling to
simulate the flow scenario, it is recommended to conduct a
systematic study on this subject to further enhance the
understanding of the inter-behaviours of the flow-flexible
barrier interaction.
(c) Trap Effect
The trap effect refers to the situation when a topographic
depression (no matter of its size) is filled up by landslide
debris travelling over resulting in accelerating the flow of
the landslide debris.
In most of the contemporary
numerical algorithms for predicting debris runout
behaviours, this trap effect, which is critical to a rigorous
simulation of landslide motion, has not been considered.
Because of its significance, it is prudent to incorporate the
trap effect in future enhancement works as one of the
improvement initiatives.


Natural terrain landslides can bring significant consequences to

the public. Assessment of debris mobility is considered as one
of the key elements to evaluate the degree of risk posing to the
population. Over the years, much development has been made
in the study methodology for dealing with the natural terrain
landslide risk, owing to, inter alia, the fact that empirical
method previously adopted for man-made slopes does not model
adequately the runout behaviours of natural terrain landslides on
sloping terrain. The latest development on the analytical
approach using debris mobility modelling has proved to be an
effective tool to assessing debris runout behaviours. Pending
further calibration and benchmarking of the newly developed
approach, continual technical development in debris mobility
modelling for application in landslide risk assessment and
mitigation is warranted. The development would, inter alia,
further improve the quality of landslide risk assessment in Hong



The development and potential applications of debris mobility

modelling discussed above demonstrate a possible scope for
advancing the current practice in debris mobility assessment.
From the experience gained over the years, the following key
areas deserve further examination:
(a) Further Calibration
In order to obtain more realistic results, numerical models
should be well tested and calibrated. Although the current
development in numerical modelling seems to be
promising, further study on the general application of the
key runout parameters at different scales and types of
landslides is considered necessary. This calls for a
systematic calibration exercise.
(b) Flow-Flexible Barrier Interaction
It has been observed that there is an increasing use of
flexible barriers to resist landslide debris. Nevertheless,
there has been a lack of understanding on the

This paper is published with the permission of the Head of the

Geotechnical Engineering Office and the Director of Civil
Engineering and Development, Government of the Hong Kong
Special Administrative Region.

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