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The physics of debris flows

by Yudong Tian, Christa D. Peters-Lidard, John B. Eylander, Robert J. Joyce, George J. Huffman, Robert F. Adler, Kuo-lin Hsu, F. Joseph Turk, Matthew Garcia, Jing Zeng show all authors
Journal of Geophysical Research ()

Abstract

Recent advances in theory and experimentation motivate a thorough reassessment of the physics of debris flows. Analyses of flows of dry, granular solids and solid-fluid mixtures provide a foundation for a comprehensive debris flow theory, and experiments provide data that reveal the strengths and limitations of theoretical models. Both debris flow materials and dry granular materials can sustain shear stresses while remaining static; both can deform in a slow, tranquil mode characterized by enduring, frictional grain contacts; and both can flow in a more rapid, agitated mode characterized by brief, inelastic grain collisions. In debris flows, however, pore fluid that is highly viscous and nearly incompressible, composed of water with suspended silt and clay, can strongly mediate intergranular friction and collisions. Grain friction, grain collisions, and viscous fluid flow may transfer significant momentum simultaneously. Both the vibrational kinetic energy of solid grains (measured by a quantity termed the granular temperature) and the pressure of the intervening pore fluid facilitate motion of grains past one another, thereby enhancing debris flow mobility. Granular temperature arises from conversion of flow translational energy to grain vibrational energy, a process that depends on shear rates, grain properties, boundary conditions, and the ambient fluid viscosity and pressure. Pore fluid pressures that exceed static equilibrium pressures result from local or global debris contraction. Like larger, natural debris flows, experimental debris flows of ?10 m3 of poorly sorted, water-saturated sediment invariably move as an unsteady surge or series of surges. Measurements at the base of experimental flows show that coarse-grained surge fronts have little or no pore fluid pressure. In contrast, finer-grained, thoroughly saturated debris behind surge fronts is nearly liquefied by high pore pressure, which persists owing to the great compressibility and moderate permeability of the debris. Realistic models of debris flows therefore require equations that simulate inertial motion of surges in which high-resistance fronts dominated by solid forces impede the motion of low-resistance tails more strongly influenced by fluid forces. Furthermore, because debris flows characteristically originate as nearly rigid sediment masses, transform at least partly to liquefied flows, and then transform again to nearly rigid deposits, acceptable models must simulate an evolution of material behavior without invoking preternatural changes in material properties. A simple model that satisfies most of these criteria uses depth-averaged equations of motion patterned after those of the Savage-Hutter theory for gravity-driven flow of dry granular masses but generalized to include the effects of viscous pore fluid with varying pressure. These equations can describe a spectrum of debris flow behaviors intermediate between those of wet rock avalanches and sediment-laden water floods. With appropriate pore pressure distributions the equations yield numerical solutions that successfully predict unsteady, nonuniform motion of experimental debris flows.

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