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  1. Abstract

    Like faults, landslides can slip slowly for decades or accelerate catastrophically. However, whereas experimentally derived friction laws provide mechanistically based explanations for similarly diverse behavior on faults, little monitoring exists over the temporal and spatial scales required to more clearly illuminate the mechanics of landslide friction. Here we show that displacement of an active slow landslide is accommodated primarily through mm‐scale stick‐slip events that recur on timescales of minutes to hours on asperities that are small (<100 m) relative to the landslide. The frequency of slip events tracks both landslide velocity and pore fluid pressure. The stick‐slip nature demonstrates by itself that slow slip is governed, at least in part, by velocity‐weakening frictional asperities. This observation, in combination with the sensitivity of slow slip to pore fluid pressure and the small relative scale of asperities, suggests similarities between slow slip in landslides and episodic slow slip along faults.

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  2. Abstract

    The rate and timing of hydrologically forced landslides is a complex function of precipitation patterns, material properties, topography, and groundwater hydrology. In the simplest form, however, slopes fail when subsurface pore pressure grows large enough to exceed the Mohr‐Coulomb failure criterion. The capacity for pore pressure rise in a landslide is determined in part by the thickness of the unsaturated zone above the water table, which itself is set by weathering patterns that should have predictable patterns across different lithologies. To investigate how this structure affects landslide behavior, we exploit a multi‐year record of precipitation, pore pressure, and velocity from Oak Ridge earthflow, a slow‐moving landslide set in Franciscan mélange, northern California, USA. In conjunction with electrical resistivity tomography and hydraulic conductivity measurements, these data show that Oak Ridge has a thin weathered profile that is comparable in thickness to other mélange landslides in California. We propose that due to the inherently thin vadose zone, mélange landscapes experience an unusually high water table that frequently brings them close to movement; however, the capacity to increase stress is limited by the small amount of dynamic storage available. Instead, excess pore pressure is shed via springs and saturation overland flow once the water table reaches the surface. Linkages between weathering patterns, hydrology, and deformation can explain behavior patterns exhibited by Franciscan mélange earthflows across a large precipitation gradient.

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  3. Abstract

    Predicting rainfall‐induced landslide motion is challenging because shallow groundwater flow is extremely sensitive to the preexisting moisture content in the ground. Here, we use groundwater hydrology theory and numerical modeling combined with five years of field monitoring to illustrate how unsaturated groundwater flow processes modulate the seasonal pore water pressure rise and therefore the onset of motion for slow‐moving landslides. The onset of landslide motion at Oak Ridge earthflow in California’s Diablo Range occurs after an abrupt water table rise to near the landslide surface 52–129 days after seasonal rainfall commences. Model results and theory suggest that this abrupt rise occurs from the advection of a nearly saturated wetting front, which marks the leading edge of the integrated downward flux of seasonal rainfall, to the water table. Prior to this abrupt rise, we observe little measured pore water pressure response within the landslide due to rainfall. However, once the wetting front reaches the water table, we observe nearly instantaneous pore water pressure transmission within the landslide body that is accompanied by landslide acceleration. We cast the timescale to reach a critical pore water pressure threshold using a simple mass balance model that considers variable moisture storage with depth and explains the onset of seasonal landslide motion with a rainfall intensity‐duration threshold. Our model shows that the seasonal response time of slow‐moving landslides is controlled by the dry season vadose zone depth rather than the total landslide thickness.

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  4. Abstract. To explore the sensitivity of rivers to blocking from landslidedebris, we exploit two similar geomorphic settings in California'sFranciscan mélange where slow-moving landslides, often referred to asearthflows, impinge on river channels with drainage areas that differ by afactor of 30. Analysis of valley widths and river long profiles over∼19 km of Alameda Creek (185 km2 drainage area) andArroyo Hondo (200 km2 drainage area) in central California shows avery consistent picture in which earthflows that intersect these channelsforce tens of meters of gravel aggradation for kilometers upstream, leadingto apparently long-lived sediment storage and channel burial at these sites.In contrast, over a ∼30 km section of the Eel River (5547 km2 drainage area), there are no knickpoints or aggradation upstreamof locations where earthflows impinge on its channel. Hydraulic andhydrologic data from United States Geological Survey (USGS) gages on Arroyo Hondo and the Eel River, combinedwith measured size distributions of boulders input by landslides for bothlocations, suggest that landslide derived boulders are not mobile at eithersite during the largest floods (>2-year recurrence) with field-measured flow depths. We therefore argue that boulder transport capacity isan unlikely explanation for the observed difference in sensitivity tolandslide inputs. At the same time, we find that earthflow fluxes per unitchannel width are nearly identical for Oak Ridge earthflow on Arroyo Hondo,where evidence for blocking is clear, and for the Boulder Creek earthflow onthe Eel River, where evidence for blocking is absent. These observationssuggest that boulder supply is also an unlikely explanation for the observedmorphological differences along the two rivers. Instead, we argue that thedramatically different sensitivity of the two locations to landslideblocking is related to differences in channel width relative to typicalseasonal displacements of earthflows. A synthesis of seasonal earthflowdisplacements in the Franciscan mélange shows that the channel width ofthe Eel River is ∼5 times larger than the largest annualseasonal displacement. In contrast, during wet winters, earthflows arecapable of crossing the entire channel width of Arroyo Hondo and AlamedaCreek. In support of this interpretation, satellite imagery shows thatimmobile earthflow-derived boulders are generally confined to the edges ofthe channel on the Eel River. By contrast, immobile earthflow-derivedboulders jam the entire channel on Arroyo Hondo. Our results imply that lower drainage area reaches of earthflow-dominated catchments may be particularly prone to blocking. By inhibiting the upstreampropagation of base-level signals, valley-blocking earthflows may thereforepromote the formation of so-called “relict topography”. 
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