Topographic and material controls on the Scottish debris flow geohazard

  • Fraser Dalton Milne

    Student thesis: Doctoral ThesisDoctor of Philosophy


    Debris flows can be considered the most significant geological hazard in areas of high relief in Scotland having impacted upon slope foot infrastructure several times in recent years. The potency of this geohazard is anticipated to increase over the coming decades due to a climatologically enforced upturn in debris flow frequency. In thisresearch material and topographic controls on debris flow activity are investigated using a combination of field and laboratory based analysis of debris flows at six study sites across upland Scotland. Centrifuge modelling is also used to simulate theinitiation of debris flows in soils with varying particle size distributions.Spatial densities of debris flow measured in the field indicate that hillslopes underlain by sandstone and granitic bedrocks, which tend to be mantled by coarser sand rich soils, have a greater frequency of flows than those underlain by schist andextrusive lava bedrocks. Higher debris flow densities on slopes underlain by sandstone and granite lithologies are facilitated by high permeability in overlying regolith matrixes allowing more rapid increase in pore water pressures duringrainstorms although this is likely to be further influenced by packing and organic content. Centrifuge modelling of hillslope debris flows also demonstrate that sandier soils are generally geotechnically more susceptible to slope failure.The susceptibility of a hillslope to debris flow is strongly influenced by slope geometry and morphology. Hillslopes with persistently steep slopes and a high incidence of concavities, gullies and couloirs are topographically more predisposed todebris flow activity due to greater shear stresses and morphologically controlled, gravity induced concentrations of hillslope hydrology. The majority of material in channelised debris flows is entrained during the gully propagation stage of the massmovement. Consequently, such events can be considered accumulative channelised debris flows. Longer and steeper gullies with greater sediment capacities are more likely to yield larger flow mass movements. Coupling between open hillslopes andbedrock gullies is shown to be an essential component for conceptualisation of the debris flow geohazard.Due to the role they play in amplifying debris flow magnitude, hazard management should be focussed around bedrock gullies and stream channels. Highesthazard rankings should be assigned to slope foot infrastructure in proximity to gullied stream channels with high sediment capacities and long, steep profiles conducive to large accumulative channelised debris flows. To avoid detrimental aesthetic impact, hazard management should be strongly geared towards utilisation of lower impactexposure reduction techniques and less visually intrusive engineering approaches such as increasing culvert capacity to accommodate debris flows. During realignment or the planning of future transport infrastructure, culverts with capacities significantly exceeding those required for purely hydrodynamic considerations should be placed straight on to stream channels avoiding proximal gully bends.
    Date of Award2008
    Original languageEnglish
    SponsorsEngineering and Physical Sciences Research Council
    SupervisorMichael Davies (Supervisor), Alan Werritty (Supervisor) & Michael Brown (Supervisor)


    • Hillslopes
    • Debris flows
    • Landslides
    • Geomorphology
    • Soil properties
    • Geohazard management

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