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STABILITY OF SLOPES CHARACTERISED BY COLLUVIUM: INVESTIGATION,


ANALYSIS AND STABILISATION

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STABILITY OF SLOPES CHARACTERISED BY COLLUVIUM:
INVESTIGATION, ANALYSIS AND STABILISATION

Ohene Karikari-Yeboah1 and Yeboah Gyasi-Agyei2

ABSTRACT

The stability of slopes characterised by colluvium presents major challenges to developers, engineers and
government authorities. The risk of slope failures is higher in areas characterised by high altitudes and high
intensity and prolonged rainfalls. Unfortunately, the routine methods of geotechnical investigation and
analysis normally adopted for steeply sloping sites may not be applicable, largely due to the composition and
characteristics of colluvium. Practical experience and innovative engineering is therefore required. This
paper presents a discussion on the available site investigation techniques for assessing colluvium slopes. The
usefulness of in situ and laboratory tests is reviewed, together with the applicability of the derived soil
parameters for the engineering analysis. The effects of rainfalls on the stability of a slope and precautionary
measures for ensuring adequate long-term stability are discussed.

INTRODUCTION

Scarcity of suitable development lands within metropolitan areas, and unique views offered by
mountainous regions are among contributing factors to hillside developments in many parts of the world.
Unfortunately, such regions are usually associated with potential slope failures. The risk of slope instability
is significantly increased where the site is characterised by colluvium. There is a general tendency to classify
sites characterised by colluvium as unsuitable for residential development. In Australia, and the Gold Coast
in particular, the process of site classification by the residential slabs and footings code (AS2870, 1996) may
preclude the identification of the presence of colluvium. If appropriately engineered, the presence of
colluvium may not preclude development. However, there could be drilling rig accessibility problem due to
site topography. Also there could be exploration difficulties associated with subsurface characteristics and
material composition of the colluvium. Applicability of the results of routine in situ and laboratory tests
could be questionable.

ORIGIN AND CHARACTERISTICS OF COLLUVIUM

Lansford (1999) described colluvium as landslide debris, which has slowly accumulated, on the long
slopes of mountains. He noted that these deposits are often wet, have numerous springs flowing through,
and contain large boulders and significant proportion of organic material. The Australian Site Investigation
Code AS1726 (1975) defines colluvium as debris, usually poorly graded and often in a loose condition,
accumulated towards the base of a terrain of high relief by the action of gravity. The term colluvium can
include material of boulder size. Holden and Hodgetts (1991) have also indicated that, colluvium may
comprise firm to stiff sandy clay with pockets of plastic clay and gravel to boulder-sized angular fragments
of rock.
Mass movements may occur in the form of landslides, rockfalls, mudflows and earthquakes
(Hollingsworth, 1982). They are common features associated with steep slopes, escarpments, or
overhanging regions. Contributing factors to the mass movements may include heavy and prolong rainfalls
and gravitational forces such as earthquakes.
The debris from mass movements may be trapped along milder sections of the slopes or at the toe. Where
a mass movement is driven by high rainfall events, the resulting debris may be transported several metres or

1
Maiden Geotechnics, P. O. Box 2079, Nerang East, QLD4211, Australia
2
Centre for Railway Engineering, Central Queensland University, Rockhampton, QLD4702, Australia
kilometres down the slope. Takahashi (1991) noted that, larger debris flow travels further than smaller ones.
He indicated that larger boulders could temporarily dam the debris-laden runoff. At a critical depth behind
the boulder dam, the temporary dam may move down hill. In escarpments, or overhanging regions, large
boulders may detach, re-bounce upon impact, or slide into the rest of the debris.
In summary, a colluvium may be described as non-homogeneous mixture of soil, cobbles and boulders
that are formed by agents of gravitational forces, and mostly along or towards the base of long slopes of
moderate to steep grades. The deposits have distinct zones of weakness and hardness, and distinct surface
separating the potentially sliding formation from the more stable, underlying residual soil and/or bedrock.
Seepage from adjacent escarpment and/or from direct rainfall infiltration may saturate the deposits.

SITE INVESTIGATION

The objective of site investigation in a colluvium environment is to determine the subsurface


characteristics, and to establish the slope geometry and appropriate shear strength parameters for slope
stability analysis. A site investigation may involve subsurface exploration and in situ testing, as well as
sampling for laboratory testing. It may incorporate one or more of the following stages (Walker et al., 1987):
• study of regional geology and geomorphology;
• study of available site data and history;
• interpretation of aerial photographs;
• topographic survey;
• geomorphological and geological mapping;

Subsurface Exploration
The nature of the site topography generally makes test pit excavation with hydraulic, track-tyred
excavators quite attractive. However, for deep-seated colluvium, test pit excavations may not suffice the
scope of works due to depth limitations. A preliminary investigation with test pit excavations is generally
recommended. This will serve to isolated areas of deep-seated colluvium for further investigation. For deeper
investigation, drilling with continuous flight augers and/or rotary or wash boring techniques may be required.
Where the colluvium overlies rock formation, it will be necessary to recover core samples of the bedrock to
determine the nature and weathering characteristics. Penetration through large boulders in the colluvium may
require continuous coring or rock hammering.

Sampling and In Situ Testing


For colluvium containing a significant proportion of oversized gravels, cobbles and boulders, pushing of
tubes for “undisturbed” samples is particularly difficult. The tube may be damaged and the sample
significantly disturbed even before it is extruded from the sampling tube. Where “undisturbed” samples are
successfully recovered, the resulting strength measurement may not reflect the strength characteristics of the
clay, gravel, cobbles and boulder matrix of the subsurface profile. This may be attributed to sample
disturbances associated with stress release, moisture content redistribution, thixotropy, mechanical vibrations
and shocks from the drilling operations (Karikari-Yeboah, 1988). On the other hand, small cohesive samples
containing little or no granular fractions may not produce strength parameters that reflect the granular and
fine-grained matrix of the colluvium.
Most invariably, good indications of the strength characteristics of the subsurface profile may be obtained
from in situ testing. An indication in the sense that, most of the available methods of in situ testing for
standard practical site investigation cannot provide accurate strength characteristics of a colluvium matrix.
For example, the standard penetration test (SPT) may provide good strength characteristics if the soil profile
is quite uniform. Where cobbles and large boulders are present, the SPT N-values could hardly represent the
strength of the general soil profile.
For a large-scale investigation, undrained strength (cu) for clays or weak rocks and angle of shearing
resistance (φ) for granular soils may be determined from the pressuremeter test. Effective values of the angle
of shearing resistance for clays (φ_) may be obtained from specialist pressuremeter tests (Mair and Wood,
1987).

SLOPE STABILITY ANALYSIS IN COLLUVIUM


Effects of Groundwater
Slope failures within colluvium often occur during peak and/or persistent rainfall. Among the possible
causes are the reduction in the shear strength at the interface between the colluvium and the residual
soil/bedrock by the increase in the pore pressures. The wetting band phenomenon of Lumb (1975) is a
classical approach for the analysis of groundwater distribution in colluvium. For perched water conditions,
Walker and Mohen (1987) recommended that the thickness of the wetting band be added to the depth of the
water table for slope stability analysis.

Shear Strength Parameters


The matrix of granular and fine-grained fractions controls the shear strength of colluvium. The value of
c_ for colluvium will be expected to lie between the corresponding values for pure granular and fine-grained
cohesive soils. For the φ_ parameter, the colluvium value may be slightly greater than the corresponding
value for fine-grained cohesive soils. For colluvium with pre-existing failure planes, the shear strength could
be assumed to be at the levels of the residual value which is significantly lower than the peak strength
(Skempton, 1964). However, sudden failures, which are usually associated with wet conditions, cannot be
explained by progressive reduction in strength to the residual values. Smith (1990) indicates that, over-
consolidated clays experience the least strength during undrained loading conditions due to generation of
negative pore pressures. This condition may also apply to other low permeability soils during or immediately
after rainfall.

Pore Pressure Distribution


Reliable representation of pore pressure distribution is critical in slope stability analysis in colluvium. The
pore pressure distribution may be represented by the pore pressure ratio, piezometric lines or pore pressure
grids (Walker and Mohen 1987). The pore pressure ratio, ru, is the ratio of the water pressure to the weight
per unit area of the overburden at any point within the soil mass (Smith, 1990). For steady state conditions, ru
may be determined by dividing the water head (γwhw) by the corresponding major principal stress (γz), where
hw is the piezometric height. Where the phreatic surface is defined by piezometric lines, the vertical distance
to the piezometric lines can be used to determine the pore pressures. The Slide Version 2 computer program
(Curran et al., 1995) computes the pore pressure by multiplying the vertical distance to the piezometric line
by an Hu coefficient. The value of Hu ranges between 0 (dry soil) and 1.0 (full hydrostatic conditions).
Intermediate values are used to simulate head loss due to seepage. Pore pressure grids may be defined by
location coordinates and corresponding pore pressure values. Pore pressure grids are particularly suitable in
the modelling of localised water conditions in colluvium.

GENERAL STABILISATION MEASURES

The major causes of slope failures in colluvium are elevated pore pressures. However, other factors such
as uncontrolled excavation, filling along steep slopes, and removal of vegetation cannot be overlooked.
Slope failure rarely occurs without the advent of rainfall or other water related causes. Discharge from spring
systems in adjacent escarpment, into the pre-existing failure plane at the base of the colluvium, rather than
direct rainfall infiltration, may account for most failures associated with colluvium slopes.

Drainage
Surface and subsurface drainage are paramount in the stabilisation of slopes characterised by colluvium.
Stormwater from direct rainfalls and discharges originating outside the deposit should be trapped before they
infiltrate the colluvium soil profile. A combination of horizontal and vertical drains, located along the toe of
the escarpment, is an effective way of controlling infiltration. For a vertical drain to function properly, it
should be extended well below the base of the colluvium into the residual soil or bedrock. The residual soil
should also be of adequate permeability. In the absence of a permeable layer below the colluvium,
subsurface discharge may be intercepted and re-directed through inclined weep holes and horizontal
subsurface drains.
Earthworks
Cut and fill operations at the steep sections, and construction of berms at the lower sections, have been
adopted elsewhere for slope stabilisation (Jones, 1991). However, as a general rule, unsupported excavations
should not be encouraged in colluvium. Similarly, filling along steep slopes should be avoided wherever
possible. Where it is unavoidable, suitable retaining structures, in conjunction with proper drainage, should
be provided.

Vegetation
Deep seated root systems act as reinforcement within a soil profile and contribute significantly to the
stability of a slope. Absorption of water by tree roots and the process of evapo-transpiration could lead to a
reduction in pore pressure and an increase in cohesion (Greenwood et al., 1996). Tree clearance eliminates
the contribution of vegetation to the stability of the slope.

CASE STUDY

The following case study provides a framework for a site investigation in colluvium. The project involved
a geotechnical investigation for a proposed residential development in the Tallebudgera Valley region of the
Gold Coast, Australia. A thorough geotechnical investigation was requested by the local council to address
the issue of the long-term stability of the slope. The local council needed to know, in particular, the degree of
stability of the existing slopes, and precautionary measures to be put in place to promote the long-term
stability of the slope.

Site Geology and Topography


The regional geology of the Tallebudgera Mountains consists of Palaeozoic, partly Silurian but generally
undifferentiated, Neranleigh-Fernvale Beds (Willmott and Stevens, 1992). The formation is reported to be
generally hard, chiefly meta-sedimentary and steeply inclined. Argillite, greywacke, quartzite, jasper and
greenstone are the major rock units. The proposed development site is a gently sloping bench with an
estimated grade of between 6o and 14o, overlain by varying depths of colluvium. It has the typical hillocky
features of colluvial deposits. It extends eastward from the base of an escarpment, 100m to 200m high,
sloping at an estimated grade of about 50o. Steep mass of detritus, comprising cobbles and boulders of up to
3m in diameter and fine-grained soils, is located along the foot of the escarpment. The face of the escarpment
and the scree are densely vegetated by small to medium-sized trees and tall eucalyptus trees.

In Situ and Laboratory Tests


Staged investigation approach was adopted. The preliminary investigation involved test pit excavations to
determine the extent and characteristics of the colluvium and, where possible, the underlying residual
formation. Based on the results of the preliminary work, part of the site was selected for detailed
investigation. In the detailed investigation, thirteen (13) boreholes were drilled through the colluvium and
into the underlying residual soil/bedrock. The continuous flight augering and wash boring methods of
drilling were adopted. Core samples from the bedrock were recovered with diamond core bits and triple tube
core barrels. Occasionally, large boulders were encountered within the colluvium, which necessitated rock
coring. Depending on the soil composition at specific depths, “undisturbed” (U50) samples were taken, or
the standard penetration test was performed. Cobbles and boulders present in the colluvium occasionally
damaged sampling tubes. Where sampling was successful, pocket penetrometer tests were carried out. The
samples were transported to the laboratory for further examination. Laboratory tests included moisture
contents, Atterberg Limits, particle size distribution and unconsolidated drained triaxial tests, with and
without pore pressure measurements. The moisture content and the triaxial test results are presented in
Figure 1 and Table 1, respectively.
The depth of the colluvium varied between 3m and 16m. Up to an approximate depth of 3.0m, the soil has
characteristically lower moisture content, loosely consolidated and contains relatively higher proportion of
cobbles and boulders. The moisture content was generally high below the 3.0m depth. This is possibly due to
accumulation of surface water percolating through the overlying, relatively porous stratum. High moisture
contents were also observed at deeper depths, which could be partially attributed to recharge from the
escarpment. The colluvium was predominantly clay (of medium to high plasticity) with less than 10% gravel
and sand. The liquid limit varied between 40 and 70, and the plasticity index between 16 and 40. The
residual soil was generally cemented and graded into weathered rock with depth. Its liquid limit varied
between 30 and 45, and the plasticity index between 10 and 30. The SPT N-values within the colluvium were
quite consistent, varying between 11 and 22, except at a particular section of the site where consistent lower
values were obtained with increase in depth below the ground surface. This section was eventually excluded
from the proposed development. Within the residual soil, the SPT N-values were generally in excess of 50.
The pocket penetrometer test results varied between 100kPa and 600kPa. Values of between 300kPa and
600kPa were generally obtained within the top 2.0m, possibly due to the relatively lower moisture contents.

45
e
r 40 BH4 BH1
u
35 BH3 BH2
t BH1 BH2
s 30
i BH2 BH1
o 25 BH3
m
20
2 4 6 8 10
depth (m)

Figure 1: Moisture content variation with depth

Table 1: Triaxial tests results

Borehole Depth Undrained Drained (peak) Unit weight (γ)


No. (m) shear strength shear strength KN/m3
c φ c_ φ_
(kPa) (Deg) (kPa) (Deg)
5 3.0 41 15 - - 20.5
8 3.0 43 13 - - 20.6
11 1.5 - - 15 25 18.6
11 3.0 - - 17 35 18.0

Slope Stability Analysis


The “Slide (ver 2)” computer program and the simplified Bishop’s moment equilibrium approach were
adopted for the slope stability analysis. Six cross sections through different areas of the site were analysed
for the minimum factors of safety. A typical cross section is shown in Figure 2. Hydrostatic forces were
modelled by indicating a position of permanent water table. The program uses the water table and an Hu
coefficient for the calculation of the hydrostatic forces. The Hu coefficient is equivalent to the head loss due
to seepage, given approximately by cos2 (∝), where ∝ is the inclination of the water table (Curran et al.,
1995). The water table was located to incorporate the wetting band in the computation.
The matrix of granular and fine-grained fractions controls the shear strength of colluvium. As indicated
earlier, the value of c_ for colluvium will be expected to lie between the corresponding values for pure
granular and fine-grained cohesive soils. The φ_ value may be slightly greater than the corresponding value
for fine-grained, cohesive soil. The laboratory results produced peak values of 15kPa and 35o for c_ and φ_,
respectively, for the fine-grained cohesive fraction.
Both peak and residual strength analysis were conducted. In order to determine the factor of safety along
the predetermined failure surface, relatively high shear strength values were assigned Figure to the 9underlying
bedrock. Using the results of the in situ and laboratory tests as a guide, various combinations of the
following strength parameters were assigned to the colluvium:
c_: 5 - 15 kPa
φ_: 0 - 10 Deg
γ: 13 kN/m3
These values are in accordance with industrial experience, e.g. Fell and Jeffrey (1987). For a typical
analysis with c_ = 5 and φ_ = 0 (for residual strength analysis) and c_ = 15kPa and φ_ = 10o (for peak
strength analysis), the minimum factors of safety were 1.49 and 1.71, respectively. The effects of drainage
are demonstrated in Table 2.

colluvium

residual soil/weathered rock


escarpment

Figure 2: A typical cross section of the site

Table 2: Minimum factor of safety: A – under existing conditions; B – under proper site drainage

Section Factor of Safety


A B
2 1.20 1.71
4 1.74 2.05
5 1.99 2.13
6 2.30 > 2.50
7 > 2.00 > 2.50
8 > 2.00 > 2.50

Slope Failure Risk Minimisation Measures


Measures to minimise the risk of slope failures at the case study site have been proposed. These include
horizontal drain along the toe of the escarpment. In order to minimise surface water infiltration through the
drainage channel, 0.3m of compacted clay liner is to be provided beneath the drainage channel. Subsurface
recharge from the escarpment is to be intercepted by vertical drains, which are particularly suitable for the
underlying high permeability residual formation. It is also recommended that the ground surface along the
bench be graded to improve surface drainage and minimise infiltration. To further improve the long-term
stability of the colluvium, partial or full excavations of the colluvium have been recommended within
building envelopes. Pile foundations have also been proposed.

Acknowledgements
The authors would like to express their sincere thanks to Mr. Janis R. Neimanis of Polar Technologies
International Pty. Ltd. for granting permission for the presentation of the case study. We also thank Dr Edem
Berdie for his helpful comments.
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