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168

TECHNICAL NOTES
THE INFLUENCE OF PROGRESSIVE FAILURE ON THE CHOICE OF
THE METHOD OF STABILITY ANALYSIS
A. W. BISHOP*

Studies in the distribution of stress in and beneath slopes (Bishop, 1952; La Rochelle,
1960; Bishop, 1967; Duncan and Dunlop, 1969; Dunlop and Duncan, 1970), whether of excavations or embankments, indicate significant non-uniformity of shear stress and stress ratio.
These are the pre-requisites of progressive failure under undrained and drained conditions respectively, and pose the question of the relevance of conventional methods of stability analysis
under these circumstances.
The problem has been discussed by Taylor (1948), Terzaghi and Peck (1948), Haefeli
(1951), Turnbull and Hvorslev (1967), Peck (1967) and Rowe (1969). It has been pointed out
by Bishop (1967) that the magnitude of the possible error involved is directly related to the
brittleness of the soil (Fig. 1) defined by the parameter I, where
I,=-

71-7,
Tf

The value of this parameter is strongly influenced by stress level, and in anisotropic soils
depends also on the orientation of the principal stresses.
By itself the value of I, given by equation (1) denotes only the difference which would be
obtained in the factor of safety by making the assumption that the whole of the rupture surface had reached the residual state at the moment at which failure eventually took place, in
place of the conventional assumption that the peak strength operated over the whole of the
surface. For a soil, whose shear strength parameters expressed in terms of effective stress are
not significantly dependent on time, there is no a priori reason why the last point on the surface to reach failure should be other than at the peak value, although other points on the surface may have moved towards the residual state by amounts controlled by their post-peak
strains, at the time of overall failure of the soil mass (as suggested, for example, by Terzaghi
and Peck, 1948, p. 91). While this is true in a general sense it raises two important questions.
(a) How is the point of failure defined for a slope consisting of a work-softening material?
(b) What is the role of the undrained changes in pore pressure resulting from movement
when the point in incipient failure is reached in soils of low permeability?
Consider a clay slope which is approaching failure under drained conditions due, for
example, to the re-establishment of steady state flow after the drop in pore water pressure
which results from the removal of load on the slope during excavation. The point of limiting
equilibrium will be reached when the fall-off in strength of these elements on a potential slip
surface which have passed the peak strength begins to exceed the increase in stress carried by
these elements that have not yet reached failure. As pointed out by Peck (1967) a detinitive answer to this problem would require a finite element solution for a work-softening
material.
However, the determination of this point is further complicated by the fact that the
strength changes consequent on any small displacement around a potential failure surface in a
soil of low permeability could be considered either on a drained or an undrained basis. If, as
proposed by Bjerrum and Kenney (1967) for quick clays, the collapse of the structural arrangement of the particles produces high enough pore pressures to offset the pre-peak increase in
frictional strength with strain, then under certain stress conditions the final stage of the failure
* Department of Civil Engineering, Imperial College of Science and Technology, London.

1 Since strains in clay are significantly time-dependent under drained conditions at constant effective
stress (Bishop and Lovenbury, 1969) the point of limiting equilibrium will itself be time-dependent.

TECHNICAL

Fig. 1.

Characteristics

NOTES

169

of brittle soil

will be undrained. In the example of the Furre landslide quoted by Bjerrum and Kenney
(1967), the average stress at failure was less than the drained peak or the drained residual
strength (assuming the value of residual strength to be similar to that of other Norwegian clays
quoted by Kenney, 1967).
On the other hand, if the undrained strength is at all stages likely to be higher than the
drained strength, the point of limiting equilibrium will be reached under drained conditions.
This is typically the case for slopes of overconsolidated clay. The post-peak displacements
are typically associated with a migration of water to the slip surface (e.g. Henkel, 1956)
indicating a tendency for displacement to be associated with a temporary decrease in pore
pressure. Therefore at the point of limiting equilibrium for a first time failure of a previously
intact slope, it follows that on some part of the slip surface the peak drained strength will be
mobilized while the post-peak and pre-peak strengths will be operative over the remainder of
the slip surface.
A small further displacement, which will be associated with a decrease in overall shearing
resistance (and if rapid with a small departure from the fully drained condition), will be suffi
cient to bring the whole surface into the peak and post-peak state. Complete failure will then
have occurred and the strength at all points will lie between the two limits of the peak and
residual states. The difference between the shearing resistance in this state and in the state
of limiting equilibrium will depend on the stress-deformation characteristics of the soil and on
the geometry of the problem, but it appears likely to be small on the basis of an approximate
analysis by Conlon quoted by Peck (1967).
At this stage the shear strength mobilized may be represented as shown in Fig. 2 by a local
residual factor R, similar to that defined by Skempton (1964) but varying along the slip surface,
the value of R, denoting the proportional drop from the peak to the residual strength (Fig.
2(b)) at any point along the surface.
Fig. 2.

Variation

of local residual factor R, along slip


surface

170

TECHNICAL

NOTES

u,::lb/q.
Fig. 3.

Shear

strength

In.

parameters

for London clay

The distribution of R, values along the rupture surface and the range of values likely to be
encountered in practice are at this stage mainly speculative. Although at least some part of
the surface must be at an RI value of zero (i.e. it is just passing the peak of the stress-strain
curve), it is less certain whether any other part will have reached the residual state.
Tests on undisturbed samples of London clay in the ring shear apparatus at Imperial
College of Science and Technology (Garga, 1970) suggest that, although the initia1 drop in
strength after the peak is rapid, relative displacements of the earth masses of the order of one
foot or more are required before the residual is approached.2 Although this displacement may
be less than one per cent of the length of a typical slip surface in a full-scale problem, it may rule
out model tests as a method of determining the distribution of R, values, as displacements of
this magnitude would be associated with too large a change in geometry.3
Before embarking on a direct analytical attack on the problem, a few intuitively chosen
R, distributions are examined as a guide to the practical relevance of this approach.
Arguments may be advanced (Bishop, 1967) for postulating that under drained conditions
progressive failure advances from both ends of the rupture surface inwards. Field observations with an inclinometer installation (de Beer, 1967,1969) suggest that rupture may progress
predominantly from the toe towards the top of the slope.4 These may be simplified to the
two R, distributions shown in Fig. Z(a).
The rapid initial drop in strength with relative displacement across the rupture surface
suggests that the R, values will fall off rapidly on moving into the post-peak zone. Two cases
have been examined
(a) peak strength at th e upper end of the slip surface (strictly this should be at the base
of the tension crack zone)
(b) peak strength at the mid-point of the arc.
To make the example realistic, the slope dimensions and geometry of the rupture surface of
the Northolt slip analysed by Skempton (1964) have been used, and approximate to Fig. 2(a).
The slope is 23: 1,the height is 33 ft. The peak strength values quoted by Skempton have been
- 2 Tests on thinner specimens (La Gatta, 1970) suggest that the stress displacement relationship is not
entirely independent of sample thickness. Extrapolation to full-scale analysismust, at this stage, be tentative.
3 Rowe (1969) expressed an opinion on scale effects that is consistent with the view that model tests
could not be used to infer the extent of progressive failure in full-scale structures in sand.
4 The approximate analysis of a slope in Lake Agassiz clay by Conlon (quoted by Peck, 1967) leads to
the suggestion that in this case the upper portion of the failure surface had passed into the residual state,
while the central zone where the normal stress was highest was considered to be at the peak value.
The
shearing resistance of the lower portion was based on compatibility of shear deformations and corresponded
to values lower than the peak.

TECHNICAL

171

NOTES

used, although the field peak value is likely to be a little lower due to the effect of sample size
The residual strength values are those recently
on the drained strength of fissured materials.
obtained with the ring shear apparatus at Imperial College of Science and Technology (Fig. 3).
For the initial calculation the straight line residual plot has been used as this permits the
use of straight lines for the plots of constant R, value against ui. The values of F can be
corrected after V, has been calculated for each slice used in the analysis, the method of analysis
being that described by Bishop (1955).
A factor of safety of 1-O was taken by Skempton (1964) to correspond to the values c=
140 lb/sq. ft and += 18. Using these values and the same failure surface the average value
of the pore pressure parameter Y, has been calculated as 0.34. With this value of ru and R,
distributions corresponding to cases (a) and (b) the factor of safety has been recalculated for
the same surface.
For the two R, distributions which reflect the rapid fall-off in post-peak strength obtained
in the ring shear test and the full range in mobilized strength from the peak to the residual
the uncorrected value of F obtained for case (a) is O-61 and that for case (b) is O-73. A small
adjustment follows correction for the curved envelope, but this lies within the tolerance of the
initial R, assumptions.
These values of F lie below the anticipated value of 1-O but are in agreement with the
value obtained using the alternative hypothesis on the mechanism of failure of first time slides
put forward by Skempton (1969, 1970) who postulates the uniform mobilization of a fully
softened strength along the whole of the failure surface. On this basis the shear strength
parameters may be taken as c = 0 and 4 = 20 and the calculated value of F is found to be 0.72.
A similar result is obtained using the critical state strength parameters as recommended by
Schofield and Wroth (1968).
The underestimate of factor of safety in this case by the progressive failure hypothesis
suggests either that the assumed post-peak drop off curve was too pronounced (an alternative
curve was found which gave F = 1.0) or that the assumption that some point on the slip surface
had reached the residual strength when first time failure was initiated is not justified in this
particular example.
However, most cases in this stress range referred to by Skempton (1970)
lay close to the c=O, += 20 envelope, and for these cases the progressive failure hypothesis
with the residual strength as the limiting value would be in good agreement with the field
observations.
The good agreement in these latter cases is to some extent fortuitous, as the assumption
of a more rapid fall-off in post-peak strength away from the peak zone would lower the calculated factor of safety while a less rapid reduction would raise it. However, it serves to
establish the principle that a reasonable distribution of local residual factor R, can adequately
explain the published case records of first time slides in overconsolidated clay.
The implications of this principle are of considerable importance in the extrapolation from
experience with one clay type to another or from one stress range to another. The distribution of local residual factors around the slip surface at failure will be a function of the following
factors
(a) the relationship between post-peak drop off in strength and displacement
(b) the swelling characteristics

of the soil

(c) the pre-peak stress deformation characteristics


conditions of stress change

of the soil under the appropriate

(d) the value of the coefficient of earth pressure at rest before the formation of the slope
(e) the geometry and scale of the slope
cf) the long-term flow pattern of the ground water.

172

TECHNICAL

NOTES

A preliminary examination of some of these factors has been made by Bjerrum (1967) and
Christian and Whitman (1969).
It is unwise to generalize on the basis of slopes where the geometry, scale and soil properties
vary only over a limited range, until the relative importance of these variabIes has been established.
It should be noted that this hypothesis applies to clay slopes whether or not the clay is
fissured. The association of the problem of progressive failure with fissured clays may be
partly due to the fact that the brittleness index is much lower in other soils under drained
conditions.
It may also be that the fissures themselves are a consequence of the high brittleness index and swelling characteristics of clays and clay shales of high plasticity index.
The analysis based on progressive failure is of greater generality than the postulate of
uniform mobilization of a fully softened strength, ahhough its predictive vaIue will be no
larger until backed by analytical methods taking account of the factors outlined.
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