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Proceedings ISC-2 on Geotechnical and Geophysical Site Characterization, Viana da Fonseca & Mayne (eds.) © 2004 Millpress, Rotterdam, ISBN 90 5966 009 9

Application of advanced geophysical technologies to landslides and unstable slopes

Robert J. Whiteley

Coffey Geosciences Pty. Ltd. Sydney, NSW, Australia

Keywords: geophysics, imaging, landfill, landslides, refraction, resistivity, seismic

ABSTRACT: Landslides and slope instability result from particular properties of soils, rocks and groundwa- ter, their distribution and interaction. Quantification of these factors can be achieved by combining direct geo- technical testing and indirect geophysical investigation. Geophysical technologies assume increased impor- tance where direct subsurface investigation by drilling is constrained by unfavourable and unsafe surface conditions. The important issues addressed are the lateral extent and depth of the affected area, the location of buried objects and density and moisture variations within and around the unstable mass. Consequently, the most successful geophysical technologies for detailed characterisation are seismic and electrical resistivity. Recently these methods have been advanced by improvements to digital acquisition equipment, tomographic imaging from boreholes and enhanced numerical analysis using personal computers. These advances allow for development of complex subsurface models that are required at landslide and unstable slope sites. Case studies demonstrate the application of these advanced geophysical technologies to a variety of landslide and unstable slope problems. In central Thailand, seismic refraction was applied to delineate an unstable mass resulting from slump failures in siltstones at a proposed dam abutment. This method, enhanced by seismic ray tracing, was able to accurately locate the failed rock units. In Western Australia seismic refraction defined a major boundary fault in weathered granites that exerted controls over sliding failures of steep coal seams dur- ing open pit mining. In Malaysia, resistivity mapping located granite boulders and blocks in a failed slope that were posing hazards to remediation works. In Sydney, Australia seismic imaging from boreholes mapped the base of an unstable waste landfill. Advanced geophysical technologies are powerful tools for the detailed characterisation of the complex sub- surface conditions at landslides and unstable ground sites and are most effective when fully integrated with conventional site investigation methods.


Once a landslide has developed or when unstable ar- eas exhibit symptoms of past movement and incipi- ent failure site investigations are normally under- taken to establish the factors affecting ground movement and to determine the appropriate reme- diation strategies for preventing or minimising fu- ture movement. It is widely recognised that land- slides and slope instability result from particular properties of soils, rocks and groundwater, their dis- tribution and interaction. Quantification of these fac- tors can often be achieved by combined application of direct geotechnical testing and indirect geophysi- cal investigation. Field work at landslides or on po- tentially unstable ground is difficult and risky. As a result geophysics is frequently considered to sup- plement drilling, however, there are widespread con- cerns that geophysical interpretations cannot

cope with the complexity of subsurface conditions in these areas due to the apparent simplicity of many interpretative models. Geophysically this complexity manifests itself as rapid variations in seismic velocity and electrical conductivity created by large changes in the elastic properties and groundwater conditions within dis- placed soil and rock masses that occur following substantial ground movements. These properties normally contrast strongly with the surrounding ma- terials. As a consequence the geophysical technolo- gies that have been most successful for detailed in- vestigations at unstable sites are seismic and electrical resistivity (Bogoslavsky and Ogilvy, 1977). These methods have recently been advanced by improved digital acquisition equipment, the use of tomographic imaging from boreholes and en-


hanced numerical data processing algorithms using personal computers. The major objective of this paper is to demon- strate, using a variety of case studies, the application of these advanced geophysical technologies to a va- riety of landslide and unstable sites where steep slopes are present.


Table 1 lists the sites from which the case studies are taken, the nature of the instability, the major task for the geophysical work and the technologies that were used. These are discussed in the following sections.

Table 1. Geophysical case studies at unstable sites.


Nature of






Dam site,

Slump failure

Map un-



of proposed

stable rock





Open pit

Sliding fail-

Locate ma-


coal mine,

ures near un-

jor bound-



stable high

ary fault



Road cut,

Landslide in













Soil move-

Map base

Borehole seis-


ment on steep

of fill






  • 2.1 Dam Site, central Thailand

During feasibility studies at a dam site on the Kwae Noi River in Central Thailand an extensive seismic refraction study was completed (Fell et al, 1992). This dam is currently under construction. Historic landslides had occurred on the proposed right abut- ment due to undercutting of the slope by the river. Landslide debris at this location produced a highly irregular ground surface strewn with large sandstone blocks. The seismic refraction study identified the shallow low velocity zone associated with this de- bris. This information and limited drilling led to in- ference of a rotational slide with a circular failure surface located close to the river level as shown in Fig. 1 . Re-interpretation of the seismic data in this region (Fig. 2) using seismic ray tracing (Whiteley,1994) improves definition of the slightly weathered rock surface and clearly showed the irregular surface of the displaced and slumped rock masses. The high Lugeon values obtained near the bottom of the in- clined borehole DKN17 (Fig. 1) are located below the cusp points that represent the upper edges of slide surfaces between the displaced blocks of silt- stone (Fig. 2).

hanced numerical data processing algorithms using personal computers. The major objective of this paper is to

Figure 1. Seismic section from dam site (from Fell et al. ibid.

Fig. 5.9).

hanced numerical data processing algorithms using personal computers. The major objective of this paper is to

Figure 2. Re-interpreted seismic section from the Kwae Noi dam site.

  • 2.2 Open Pit Coal Mine,Western Australia

The major coal resources of Western Australia occur in the intracratonic Collie Basin about 120 km south of Perth. A major north-south structural feature, the Muja Fault separates this basin from the Archaean basement of the Yilgarn Block, and forms the west wall of the Muja Open Cut coal mine. This area has long been recognised as being unstable (Joass, 1993) and various failures have occurred. At this location the coal sequence abuts the fault with seam dips a great as 60 o due to fault drag. The coal is mined in a series of 120m wide strips advancing to the north that are backfilled with spoil as the mining proceeds. The Fault, itself, is a normal fault dipping at an average angle of 80 o into the basin. Adjacent to the fault plane is a zone of highly sheared basement rock consisting of chloritic schists and foliated gneiss. Beyond the fault zone moderately jointed gneiss is exposed. The shear zone is believed to represent an ancient fault zone along which the Muja Fault sub- sequently acted.


© 2004 Millpress, Rotterdam, ISBN 90 5966 009 9

As the Muja Fault is concealed at many locations and has been found to wander, seismic refraction was chosen to map the fault zone as a lower cost al- ternative to detailed drilling. Early seismic refraction work over this fault (Peck and Yu, 1982) showed that substantial seismic velocity contrasts were pre- sent and indicated that the fault could be directly de- tected as a low velocity zone, however, later seismic work demonstrated that more reliable indicators of the fault were lateral structural and velocity varia- tions at the freash and weathered bedrock levels. Figure 3 shows an interpreted seismic section across the Muja Fault prior to mining with some of the seismic data. This section has been verified with computer ray-tracing and the geology from drilling.

As the Muja Fault is concealed at many locations and has been found to wander, seismic

Figure 3. Interpreted seismic section over the Muja Fault

The seismic refraction work accurately mapped the weathered granitic and sedimentary bedrock across the fault. Substantial variations in bedrock levels occur across the fault with a displaced block of weathered granite correlating with moderately jointed gneiss extends from the fault zone for about 25 m (from about Ch. 215 to 240 m on Fig. 3). Movement of this block along the fresh bedrock sur- face is believed to represent the major source of the instability that manifests itself as sliding failures in the coal sequence followed by eventual failure of the high wall of the mine.

  • 2.3 Road Cut, Penang, Malaysia

In late 1998 a steep slope of weathered granite be-










Terubong, Penang Malaysia failed. Large granite boulders were displaced and there were concerns that unstable buried boulders might remain in the area around the failed slope, posing a hazard during remediation works. The terrain in this region is

highly irregular and natural slope of the hill prior to

the landslide was between 45


and 65 0 . As large

electrical contrasts were expected between the com- pletely weathered granite soils and the fresher less conductive granite boulders the electrical resistivity method was used to locate and determine approxi- mate depth of any boulders. The dipole-dipole sounding/profiling resistivity method was used along a number of profiles around the landslip with a dipole spacing of 5 m and n=1 to 5. The steep slopes made it necessary to compute measured earth resistances to apparent resistivities using actual electrode positions obtained from sur- vey rather than the standard formula based on a flat earth model. These apparent resistivities were plot-

ted as Edwards electrical pseudosections at the array midpoint and the “effective” or median depth (Ed- wards, 1977). The effective depth range using this method was between 2.1 and 7.4m. The apparent re- sistivity data were also contoured at each effective depth. This approach was preferred to 2D inversion (Loke and Barker, 1996) and insufficient data was obtained to permit accurate 3D inversion. Figure 4 shows the resistivity profile locations (S1 to S9) and an apparent resistivity contour plan around the slide area at an effective depth of 2.1m. The areas of higher resistivity that have been marked are interpreted to represent the tops of shallow gran- ite boulder concentrations.

As the Muja Fault is concealed at many locations and has been found to wander, seismic

Figure 4. Apparent resistivity contour plan

Proceedings ISCʼ2 on Geotechnical and Geophysical Site Characterization, Viana da Fonseca & Mayne (eds.)


An apparent resistivity pseudosection for Line S8 (Fig.4) is shown on Fig. 5 and Table 2 lists the inter- pretation of the anomalous resistivity highs on the pseudo-sections in terms of the presence of boulders from close to the surface to about 7m depth.

An apparent resistivity pseudosection for Line S8 (Fig.4) is shown on Fig. 5 and Table 2

Figure 5. Apparent resistivity pseudosection with boulder areas marked.

Table 2. Interpretation of Anomalous Resistivity High Areas




Circular high enlarging with in- creasing depth

Large shallow boulder connected to or in close proximity with the rock mass or deeper boulders Multiple boulders at shallow depth in weathered groundmass (grus)


Multiple complex

highs decreasing

with depth

The boulders in area B were considered the most hazardous. These were exposed and removed prior to the start of remediation works.

  • 2.4 Waste Landfill, Sydney Australia

Uncontrolled dumping of domestic and building waste over a long period created an unstable fill site within an old sandstone quarry, adjacent to a river in south-western Sydney. The waste was believed to be at least 20 m thick. Although the site had been closed for many years and natural vegetation has re- turned, evidence of continuing instability was evi- dent from visual inspection. There was concern

about long stability of the waste and its potential to pollute the waterway should the slope fail. A key is- sue was the shape of the quarried rock surface be- neath the potentially unstable fill. Seismic imaging was completed between a pair of boreholes (BH101 and BH104) along a profile where surface subsidence had occurred near BH101.The crosshole imaging was supplemented by surface-to-borehole imaging either side of these holes with seismic refraction along the entire profile. Downhole and surface seismic sources were placed at 2 to 5 m intervals and the downhole hydrophone array had detectors at 2 m intervals. Fig. 6 shows the interpreted seismic incorporating all the seismic data and calibrated using the borehole logs.

An apparent resistivity pseudosection for Line S8 (Fig.4) is shown on Fig. 5 and Table 2

Figure 6. Seismic image of unstable waste fill site.

This image shows that the waste fill has a very low seismic velocity that rapidly increases near the bedrock surface. The rapid shallowing of these ve- locity contours on the right edge of the image repre- sents the rise to the outcropping sandstone of the old quarry margin. The bedrock interface is close to the 1900 m/s (1.9 km/s) velocity contour. This contour indicates that the likely location of buried quarry

benches occurs where the bedrock deepens abruptly

or at distances of –5 m and –24 m from BH 101. The average bench height from the seismic image is about 4m.

The combination of limited drilling, installation

of inclinometers and monitoring and this seismic imaging allowed an improved geotechnical model

for the site to be derived that guided subsequent monitoring and remedial works.


The application of surface and borehole seismic and electrical technologies with the latest analysis and modelling methods provides powerful tools for the detailed characterisation of the complex subsurface conditions at landslides and unstable ground sites. These geophysical methods are able to deal with a wide variety of problems and are most effective when fully integrated with conventional methods for geotechnical site investigation.


© 2004 Millpress, Rotterdam, ISBN 90 5966 009 9


Bogoslovsky, V.A. and Ogilvy, A.A., 1977 Application of geophysical methods for the investigation of landslides. Geophysics, 42, 562-571. Edwards, L.S. 1977 A modified pseudosection for resistivity and IP. Geophysics,42,1020-1036. Fell, R, MacGregor, P and Stapledon, D. 1992 Geotechnical Engineering of Embankment Dams. Balkema, Rotterdam,


Loke, M.H. and Barker, R.D. 1996. Rapid least-squares inver- sion of apparent resistivity pseudosections by Quasi- Newton method. Geophysical Prospecting, 4,131-152. Peck, W. and Yu, S.M. 1982 Seismic refraction studies for mine planning and design. Coal Geology 4,2,341-353. Joass, G.G. 1993 Stability monitoring on the west wall of the Muja open cut. Geotechnical Instrumentation and Monitor- ing in Open Pit and Underground Mining, Szwedzicki (ed.), Balkema Rotterdam, 283-291. Whiteley, R.J. 1994 Seismic refraction testing – a tutorial. in Geophysical Characterization of Sites ed. R.C. Woods, ISSMFE, New Delhi, 45-47

Proceedings ISCʼ2 on Geotechnical and Geophysical Site Characterization, Viana da Fonseca & Mayne (eds.)