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The physics of debris flows

by Richard M. Iverson
Reviews of Geophysics ()

Abstract

Recent advances in theory and experimen- tation 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 com- prehensive debris flow theory, and experiments provide data that reveal the strengths and limitations of theoret- ical models. Both debris flow materials and dry granular materials can sustain shear stresses while remaining stat- ic; both can deform in a slow, tranquil mode character- ized 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 incompress- ible, 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 (mea- sured 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 vibra- tional 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 be- hind surge fronts is nearly liquefied by high pore pres- sure, which persists owing to the great compressibility and moderate permeability of the debris. Realistic mod- els of debris flows therefore require equations that sim- ulate 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 characteristi- cally originate as nearly rigid sediment masses, trans- form at least partly to liquefied flows, and then trans- form 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 behav- iors intermediate between those of wet rock avalanches and sediment-laden water floods. With appropriate pore pressure distributions the equations yield numerical so- lutions that successfully predict unsteady, nonuniform motion of experimental debris flows.

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