Landslide morphology and its insight into the timing and causes of slope failure: case study of post-glacial landslides in Yellowstone National Park

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Montana State University - Bozeman, College of Letters & Science


Landslides are ubiquitous to post-glacial landscapes worldwide. Withdrawal of glacier ice exposes over-steepened landscapes that may be unstable, and consequently susceptible to landsliding. Glacial debuttressing may directly destabilize slopes; however, seismicity and transitions to interglacial climates associated with greater effective moisture and subsequent degradation of permafrost may also play a role. Here, we explore disparate potential mechanisms of slope failure in a set of post-glacial landslides in northwest Yellowstone National Park. We quantify spatial relationships, topographic metrics, and relative age of eight landslides within the north entrance to the park, a system traversed by over 700,000 visitors every year. Analysis of high-resolution topography indicates increasing surface roughness of non-active landslides southward. These roughness values in ancient slides are roughly half those of the active Slide Lake Landslide, and suggest younging ages along the retreat path of the Yellowstone Ice Cap, consistent with glacial debutressing as the likely trigger for these slides. However, roughness values and their application for relative age dating are strongly confounded by topographic biases such as gullying, fluvial erosional contacts, and anthropogenic features (e.g., roads, structures). Once roughness biases are removed, we find roughness differences between landslides decrease, and do not support younging ages along the path of ice retreat. Thus, glacial debuttressing most likely only had a preparatory influence on slope failure, and was not the direct trigger. Analysis of subsurface soils at landslide toes indicate a >17 plasticity index, pointing to highly expansive clays that are sensitive to moisture addition. Stratigraphic relationships between post-glacial terraces and soil analyses suggest a late Pleistocene (~13 - 11.5 ka) timing for slide initiation, a period coincident with high available moisture. Stream power analysis indicates that Holocene incision of the Gardiner River is focused at a knickpoint locally coincident with the toe of the active Slide Lake Landslide, providing a mechanism for modern, local reactivation of the ancient slides. Together, our findings broadly show how quantifying the temporal and spatial patterns of landslides can be diagnostic of the controls on slope failure, and can be used to understand risk. They also highlight the importance of careful site calibrations and bias removals in roughness analysis.




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