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Quantitative analysis of debris torrent hazards for design of remedial measures

Thurber Consultants Ltd., Suite 100, 1281 West Georgia St., Vancouver, B.C., Canada V6E 3J7

Kellerhals Engineering Ltd., P.O. Box 250, Heriot Bay, B.C., Canada VOP I HO
Received March 20, 1984
Accepted June 28, 1984
Debris torrents, which are rapid flows of soil and organic debris down steep mountain channels, are a major natural hazard in
many parts of British Columbia.
A series of recent occurrences along the Squamish Highway, north of Vancouver, led the provincial government to initiate a
systematic study of debris torrents in this area. This 2 year study involved hazard risk assessment and resulted in the design of a
comprehensive system of remedial measures comprising debris retention barriers and basins, channel improvements and
diversions, and the reconstruction of bridges. It was necessary in the course of this effort to formulate new design procedures
covering the dynamic behaviour of debris torrents, as there was no accepted practical methodology suitable for Western Canadian
This paper provides an approach to determining magnitude (volume of debris material involved), frequency, peak discharge,
velocity, conditions for deposition, runout distance, behaviour in bends and run-up against barriers, and dynamic thrust and
impact loadings. The procedures are based on some of the more practical concepts available in the specialized literature,
supplemented by simple original theories and calibrated against several recent debris torrent events from British Columbia for
which sufficiently detailed observational data exists. To be generally applicable, the procedures require a wider and more
thorough calibration. They are presented here as working hypotheses that can be used as a guide to the assembly of additional data
and provide a rational design tool to supplement the application of experience and judgement.
Key words: debris torrents, debris flows, slope hazards, landslide dynamics, remedial measures, engineering design

Des torrents de dCbris, Ccoulements rapides de dCbris de sols et de matikres organiques dans les ravins montagneux abrupts,
reprksentent un risque nature1 important dans de nombreuses regions de la Colombie Britannique.
Une sCrie rCcente de tels phCnomknes le long de la route de Squamish, au nord de Vancouver, a amen6 le gouvernement
provincial i lancer une Ctude systCmatique des torrents de debris dans cette rCgion. Cette Ctude, d'une durCe de 2 ans, comportait
1'Cvaluation de la probabilitC de risque et a conduit i 1'Ctablissement d'un vaste systkme de mesures correctives comprenant des
barrikres et des bassins de retention des dCbris, des amCliorationset des dCtournementsde lits et la reconstruction de ponts. Dans
le cours de cette Ctude, il a Ct6 nCcessaire de formuler de nouvelles procCdures d'analyse concernant le comportement dynamique
des torrents de debris, puisqu'il n'existait aucune mCthode pratique acceptCe applicable aux conditions de l'Ouest du Canada.
Cet article prCsente une approche permettant de determiner l'importance (volume de matCriau de debris implique), la
frkquence, le debit de pointe, la vitesse, les conditions de diposition, la distance de propagation, le comportement en virage et la
remontCe le long d'obstacles, la poussCe dynamique et les forces d'impact. Les procCdures sont fondCes sur certains des concepts
les plus pratiques prCsentCs dans la 1ittCrature spCcialisCe, appuyCes par des thCories originales simples et calibrCes sur plusieurs
Cvknements recents en Colombie Britannique pour lesquels des observations suffisamment dCtaillCes Ctaient disponibles. Pour
devenir d'application gCnCrale, les procCdures prCsentCes demandent une calibration plus large et plus complkte. Elles sont
prCsenttes ici comme des hypothkses de travail qui peuvent &treutilisCes comme guide lors de la collecte de donnCes additionelles
et comme outil de design rationnel pour supporter le jugement et l'expkrience.
Mots cle's: torrents de dCbris, coulCes de dCbris, risques de talus, dynamique des glissements, mesures correctives, ingCniCrie.
[Traduit par la revue]
Can. Geotech. J. 21, 663-677 (1984)
Introduction and interior regions of British Columbia. The area along
A debris torrent can be described as the rapid the Squamish Highway north of Vancouver (British
movement of saturated soil, rocks, and other debris Columbia Highway 99) contains 26 mountain stream
down a steep mountain channel (Swanston and Swanson basins each with over 1000 m of relief, which have
1976). Debris torrents commonly occur in the coastal produced at least 14 debris torrent events over the last 25
years. During the past 3 years alone, five major events
'"~ebrisflow" is a better-established international term to have occurred (Lister 1984), resulting in the loss of
describe the same phenomenon (Vames 1978). The word
"mudflow" (Cuny 1966) has also been used in other regions. life of twelve persons and the destruction of or damage
~h~ term -debris is highly descriptive and well suited to nine bridges and six houses. The existence of debris
to the particular character of the coarse-grained events of the torrent hazards along the highway ~-~cessitates operating
Pacific Coast Mountains and has found strong regional expenditures for bridge maintenance, debris removal,
acceptance in British Columbia and the Northwest United regular patrols, traffic delays, and preventative evacua-
States. tion of residents. With continuing urbanization of many
CAN. GEOTECH. J. VOL. 21, 1984

Point of
( A l t i t u d e 1100 m ,
a . s . 1.)

S t a r t of

Bridge demolished

End o f r u n o u t
( i n ocean)

FIG. 1. A coastal debris torrent basin after an event of a 20 000 m3 magnitude, which cost nine lives (M-Creek, Squamish
Highway, October 1981).

of the debris fans, the future toll could undoubtedly be ture, especially that from Japan. These were calibrated
much higher. against several debris torrent events from the vicinity of
In the fall of 1982, the British Columbia Department the project area.
of Transportation and Highways authorized a study of The methods are semiempirical and have so far been
the debris torrent hazards along the highway (Thurber applied only within southern coastal British Columbia
Consultants Ltd., 1983). Subsequently, a range of (except as noted below). They are presented here as
remedial measures have been designed, including debris working concepts which, if suitably calibrated on a
retention basins, channel improvements and diversions, regional basis, could be used in any alpine region. A
torrent-proof bridge reconstructions, and deflecting particular exception should be made with regard to
dykes. Most are presently under construction. This sub- debris flows with significant proportion of colloidal
stantial design effort required suitable design methods to particles (clay or volcanic ash).
obtain parameters for the safe and optimal sizing of the
various structures. As there was no established method- The nature of debris torrents in Western Canada
ology available in Canada to deal with the quantitative Debris torrents begin in the steep upper reaches of
aspects of debris torrent behaviour, it was necessary to small drainage basins during periods of high runoff,
develop new techniques. The methods developed were collecting large quantities of loose material from the
based on a selection of the more practical and generally entire length of the channel and depositing on the surface
applicable concepts available in the specialized litera- of the debris cone (Figs. 1 and 2). Two or more branches

The concept of a design event is analogous to that of a

design flood in hydrology, although presently available
data do not permit the evaluation of return periods (see
below). We define the design event as the largest and
most mobile debris torrent that could reasonably occur
during the life of the structure under consideration.
Those parameters of the design torrent required for the
purposes of mitigation design are discussed below
together with examples and requirements for further
Event magnitude or debris voIume
Event magnitude is the total volume of coarse and fine
debris material transported to the fan in the course of a
FIG.2. Damage due to the debris torrent shown in Fig. 1. single event, irrespective of the number of surges. It
The house was pushed off its foundation but not entirely serves not only to determine needed storage space in
destroyed, being close to the end of deposition where velocities retention reservoirs but also as an overall index of the
were low. severity of the event, which can be used to scale other
of a given stream may be involved in a single event. parameters. Reported magnitudes of debris flows range
Many debris torrent events occur in two or more surges, from several hundred m3 to 500 000 m3 (Hampel 1977).
spaced over several hours. Individual surges have short The largest reported Canadian case was 175 000 m3
durations measured only in minutes, and are commonly (Jackson 1979).
associated with abundant water flooding. Magnitude obviously depends on the size of the
A typical surge through the lower reaches of a source area and the vulnerability of the source materials
mountain creek begins by the rapid passage of a steep to be mobilized or rapidly eroded under flood flow
bouldery front, followed by the main body of the torrent. conditions.
This consists of unsorted coarse particles ranging from Some authors (e.g. Hampel 1977) base magnitude
gravel to boulders and logs, floating in a sluny of predictions on the volume of storm runoff. However,
liquefied sand and finer material. Both the proportion of given the fact that most debris torrents are accompanied
fines and the water content increase in the later stages of by profuse flooding and derive from highly saturated
the surge, forming a liquid "after flow," which gradually surficial soils, it would seem more logical to base the
merges into normal flood flow. Upon reaching flatter prediction on a balance of debris availability, rather than
gradients or a less confining channel, the surge tends that of water.
to decelerate and deposition can occur. The liquid after In the first approximation, magnitude could be corre-
flow may break through the coarse deposits and continue lated with the size of the drainage basin. The ratio
further down the cone. between the design torrent magnitude and the drainage
There appears to be a continuous spectrum of area of a given creek, referred to as the "area debris yield
phenomena ranging from debris torrents to bed load. rate" (m3/km2) should be a constant for drainage basins
True debris torrent surges, as discussed herein, can of different sizes but of similar topography, geology,
be distinguished from mass bed load movements by and climatic and hydrologic conditions. Table 1 shows
the substantial rise of the debris wave above the flood that, even within a narrow region such as the coastal
flow water level at peak discharge. The mechanics of the British Columbia, the yield rate varies within a factor of
latter would be influenced by water overflow and its six, while much greater variability applies in general.
associated tractive forces. The yield rate approach would therefore appear to be
Owing to their relatively common occurrence, and suitable only for preliminary estimates. It may, how-
potential for long reach and high velocities, debris ever, be the best approach towards estimating the
torrents present a major hazard to developments and potential of certain basins that have been burnt by forest
structures built in the vicinity of mountain creeks and on fire (L. Jackson, personal communication).
alluvial fans (Miles and Kellerhals 1981). The danger A different approach is to recognize that the direct
may not be obvious, since the periodicity of debris source of the debris is in most cases the stream channel
torrents is irregular on any individual creek and long and its immediate vicinity. Magnitude should therefore
periods of dormancy often permit full reestablishment of be proportioned to the length of channel (including any
forest cover over affected areas. Correct identification of major tributaries) upstream of the depositional area, to
streams subject to debris torrents is a major problem the point (points) of origin. The proportionality con-
outside the scope of this presentation (see Thurber stant, referred to as the "channel debris yield rate"
Consultants 1983). (m3/m) varies by about a factor of three, as shown in
666 CAN. GEOTECH. J. VOL. 21. 1984

TABLE1. Area debris yield rate and channel debris yield rate for several past debris torrents of the British Columbia coast ranges

Drainage Mean gradient Area debris Channel debris

Magnitude area of the channel* yield rate yield rate
Event (m3) Surges (km2) (deg) (m3/km2) (m3/m)

M-Creek, Squamish Highway,

1981 20 000 ?
Charles Creek, Squamish
Highway, 1981 20 000 1
Alberta Creek, Squamish
Highway, 1983 10 000 6
Wahleach A, Fraser Valley,
1983 55 000 ?
Port Alice, Vancouver Island,
1975 22 000 1
(Nasmith and Mercer 1979)
"From the point of initiation to the apex of the alluvial fan.
tBased on combined length of two major branches of the debris torrent (3000 m) and without allowance for point sources.

Table 1. It should be somewhat dependent on the concerning past events than is presently available. An
drainage area, as discussed below. alternative approach is to estimate the channel debris
The variation in the channel debris yield rate within a yield rate directly in the course of a detailed inspection
given region obviously results from differences in of a stream channel (VanDine 1984). The volume of
the topographic and geological character of various loose erodible material is inventoried by an engineering
channels, in other words, channel erodibility. Ideally, geologist, who can measure the surface area likely to be
one would wish to establish a classification of stream affected by debris torrent erosion but must guess at the
channels taking into account the gradient, type of bed likely depth of movement. This is perhaps the most
material, height and steepness of side slopes if made of reliable method available for channels with a bedrock
erodible material, and the general stability condition of base, although it is somewhat subjective. The estimate
the channel as reflected by vegetation. A few basic of erosion depth is very difficult in channels with loose
classes, characteristic of the coastal British Columbia base and banks.
streams, are suggested in Table 2, together with tenta- A further refinement of the channel debris yield rate
tive estimates of the channel debris yield rate as method is to account for the width of the channel. The
back-calculated from events shown in Table 1. debris volume produced from a length L of a channel
To estimate the design debris torrent from parameters with uniform erodibility and width B can be calculated:
such as those given in Table 2, one needs to sum the [I] M=LBel
combined lengths of channel in each category down-
stream of an estimated point of initiation, multiplied by where M is the magnitude in m3 and e' is the mean
the respective yield rate. Point sources of debris, such as erosion depth in m. The width B can either be measured
individual landslides in creek banks, may add 10% or directly, or related to the square root of the drainage area
more to the total magnitude. Their potential may, how- Ai tributary to the stream sector under consideration
ever, be difficult to identify, in which case they should (e.g. Kellerhals 1970). Dividing the stream into n
be accounted for by a conservatively selected yield rate. sectors, we have
The point of initiation would, in the case of the B.C.
coast, be taken as the highest point of any suspect branch
with a sufficiently steep gradient. The suggested gradi-
ent limits are 30" in the case of shallow channels with where Li is the sector length in m, ei is a "channel erodi-
stable banks and 15" in the case of channels incised in bility coefficient7'with the dimensions of m3/(m.km2),
unconsolidated materials where a debris slide from and Ai is measured in kmz.
the bank could cause damming of the stream. All Geometrical considerations indicate that the relation-
major branches should be assumed to be active simul- ship between the channel debris yield rate and the
taneously. erodibility coefficient for channels of uniform descrip-
It would be desirable to refine Table 2 by adding more tion depends upon drainage area size and shape. It can be
categories, although this would require much more data shown, for example, that the two constants would be

TABLE2. Tentative estimated channel debris yield rates for typical stream channels of the southern coast ranges

Channel debris Erodibility

Channel Gradient yield ratet coefficient
tY Pe (deg) Bed material Side slopes Stability condition* (m3/m) (m3/(m.km))
A 20-35 Bedrock Nonerodible Stable, practically 0-5 0-5
bare of soil cover
B 10-20 Thin debris Nonerodible Stable 5-10 5-10
or loose soil (bedrock)
over bedrock
C 10-20 Deep talus or Less than Stable 10-15 10-15
moraine 5 m high
D 10-20 Deep talus or Talus, over Side slopes at repose 15-30 15-30
moraine 5 m high
E 10-20 Deep talus or Talus, over Side slopes potentially Up to 200 Not applicable
moraine 20 m high unstable (landslide (consider as
area) point source)
*Prior to the expected debris torrent event.
+For drainage areas of 1-3 km'. For other drainage areas use [2].

approximately equal in the case of an elongated rec- latter, on the other hand, might be destabilized by an
tangular drainage area of about 2 km2. Based on this, the event and this can lead to a period of frequent activity,
tentative erodibility coefficients shown in Table 2 equal followed by a return to the dormant state. Charles Creek
the corresponding yield rates. The introduction of on the Squamish Highway, which flows through exten-
channel width is important only where it is necessary to sive talus deposits, for example, produced five major
interpolate between greatly different drainage areas with events in 15 years. M-Creek, in the same area, on the
similar erodibility characteristics. other hand, has a recurrence period in excess of 50 years
It must be emphasized that all constants referred to (Skermer 1981).
above are applicable only on a narrow regional basis, as
they incorporate climatic, geological, and even biologi- Debris discharge
cal factors. The flow of a debris torrent has an unsteady, pulsating
character. Many authors (e.g. Morton and Campbell
Frequency of occurrence 1974; Pierson 1980; Takahashi 1981) who have observed
Debris torrents in coastal B .C. are triggered primarily debris torrents in motion describe each surge as consisting
by concentrated "cells" of high precipitation, occurring of a steep bouldery front, followed by a swell of finer
within relatively common storm events with apparent debris, which gradually diminishes and becomes diluted
return periods of only 2-5 years, and combined with and turbulent. The maximum discharge occurs shortly
snowmelt (Miles and Kellerhals 198 1; Schaefer 1980; behind the front and may be of a relatively short
Evans and Lister 1984). Their frequencies therefore do duration. For example, eyewitnesses of the second surge
not coincide directly with known precipitation patterns. of the November 1983 Charles Creek event described an
On the other hand, insufficient historical data exists in initial wave of debris 4.5 m high, momentarily reaching
Canada to permit direct statistical treatment. Debris an estimated discharge of 290 m3/s for approximately
torrent frequencies therefore cannot at present be pre- 5 s. A film of the subsequent flow shows a discharge of
dicted quantitatively. 120m3/s, continuing for 35 s. The full duration of the
Qualitative estimates can be made based on visible surge was estimated to be 2-3 min.
and geologic evidence (including dendrochronology) Another example is a film of a debris surge in the
and recollections of residents. These should, however, Kamikamihori Valley of Japan, obtained by Professor
be assessed carefully since dormancy periods of up to H. Suwa of Kyoto University. The film shows a front
200 years have been recorded in Europe (Hampel 1977). moving at a velocity of approximately 4 m/s through a
In this regard, there is an important distinction between check dam. The peak discharge of approximately
streams with bedrock bed and those underlain by loose 85 m3/s was achieved only 2 s after the front. Then,
unconsolidated deposits. The former require gradual over the next 1 min, the discharge gradually decayed
accumulation of detritus from one event to another, and to about 10 m3/s in turbulent flow.
are therefore temporarily stable after an event. The It is not known what determines the peak depth of a
668 CAN. GEOTECH. J. VOL. 21, 1984

@ @ E V E N T - see Table 3 Another method of estimating discharge, suggested

@ @) @@ e x c e p t : 0 indirectly by both Hampel (1977) and Takahashi (1978),
1 1 111 9 - Alberta Cr., 1983
10- Port A l i c e , 1973 1 uses the criterion of water balance. A simple application
can be based on the following assumptions: (a) The
debris torrent surge forms by the dilution of itz situ
saturated debris by mixing with flood water. (b) The
surge peak is long, so that longitudinal transfer of water
between the surge and the channel in front and behind
can be neglected. Under these assumptions, the in situ
porosity of the debris material, no, is increased by an
amount equal to the ratio of water flood discharge to
debris discharge, Qf/Q, to obtain the surge porosity, n.
From this:
0 10 20 30 40 50
M A G N I T U D E (1000 m 3 where Qf is the discharge of the associated flood.
The results of this calculation are shown for three
M E T H O D OF ESTIMATING DISCHARGE: selected creeks in Fig. 3, plotted against the estimated
magnitude. The 50 year flood discharge and a porosity
decrease of 15% were selected for these examples. This
superelevation ([13])
method strongly underestimates peak discharge. This is
+ weir f o r m u l a
probably because the short debris surges, travelling at a
model test
higher velocity than the flood, incorporate significant
0 v e l o c i t y equation ( [ 5 ] ) water in the longitudinal direction, contrary to the above
flood d i s c h a r g e ( [ 3 ] ) assumption (b).
FIG.3. Correlation between debris torrent event magnitude A third method, which could be used in cases where
and maximum discharge. there is little historical data, is to assume that the peak
discharge results from a concentration of liquid debris
surge or its duration. It is likely that random factors such behind a temporary dam somewhere in the channel,
as the uarticular mechanism of initiation and accidental which subsequently bursts, producing a wave of debris.
tempo;ary self-damming of the flow in the headwaters The discharge can be conservatively estimated using the
play an important role. The randomness of peak dis- "dam break" formula neglecting viscosity and assuming
charge is shown by a comparison between the 1981 and that the surge travels downstream without significant
1983 events on Charles Creek, both of which were of dissipation:
similar magnitude. The first comprised numerous pulses
with peak depths of less than 2 m and an estimated
maximum discharge of 90m3/s. In contrast, the 1983 where g is the gravity acceleration and h and b are the
event consisted of two major and approximately four height and width of the temporary reservoir. For
minor surges, with an observed maximum discharge of example, the peak discharge of the 1983 Wahleach A2
290 m3/s. debris torrent, estimated in Fig. 3 as 566 m3/s, would
The peak discharge of seven of the major events correspond to a dam 30 m wide and 7.6 m high. This is
recorded in the Lower Mainland over the last 3 years has not unreasonable, considering that the torrent travelled
been determined and correlated in Fig. 3 with the event in a deeply incised valley whose talus walls were subject
magnitude. The discharges were calculated from flow to landsliding.
cross sections based on observed mud lines, combined
with velocity estimates given by eyewitnesses, by Flow velocity
superelevation analysis, and by the uniform laminar The best documented peak velocity observations from
flow equation (see below). One direct discharge esti- the recent debris torrent events of coastal B.C. are
mate is based on the broad-crested weir formula a ~ ~ l i e dsummarized in Table 3. They are derived from eye-
1 1

at a waterfall and another is a release discharge of a witness reports and superelevation data on banking in
model sluny in a physical model test (Northwest bends (see below). A plot of this data on a depth versus
Hydraulic Consultants Ltd. 1976). discharge per unit width diagram (Fig. 4) indicates a
An upper bound to this data is taken as an empirical strong dependence of velocity on depth, which is typical
correlation between the maximum discharge and event for laminar flow. A comparison shown in Fig. 4
magnitude, even though it is acknowledged that a
considerable scatter must exist below the line. 2 ~ l s known
o as Ted Creek.
TABLE3. Summary of velocity estimates

Flow cross section Suoerelevation

Mean Mean slope Banking Curve Mean*
depth width Area angle height radius velocity Discharge?
Event Location (m) (m) (m2) Shape (deg) (m) (m) (m/s) (m3/s) Comment

M-Creek, 1981, u Near base of fall, non-

end of gorge uniform flow
M-Creek, 1981, Rect. Discharge derived from 1
beneath hwy. bridge
Charles, 1981, Rect. Eyewitnesses report low s
end of gorge velocity, no specifics c
Charles, 1983, Trap. Minimum velocity from io
upstream of bridge four eyewitness -I

accounts r
Charles, 1983, Rect .
below 1st fall
Charles, 1983, Rect . Discharge derived from 5
end of gorge
Wahleach A, 1983, Rect . Assume channel erosion
end of gorge complete
Wahleach B, 1983 Rect. Volcanic rock
end of gorge
*Velocity derived from the superelevation formula (eq. [13]), unless noted otherwise.
?Discharge calculated as mean velocity times maximum flow cross-sectional area.
670 CAN. GEOTECH. J. VOL. 21, 1984

0 0 0 0

slope angle = 8.2"


t I I I I I I I I 1 I 1 I
1 2 3 4 5 10 20 30 50 100 200
U N I T DISCHARGE (m3 / ( s . m))
FIG.4. Velocity /depth relationships applicable to the peak of a debris torrent surge. (Note: observation 4 adjusted by a shape
factor to account for confined flow.)

indicates that turbulent flow, such as that of water, flow models have been suggested for the uniform flow of
would have a strongly different trend. Velocity formulas debris, all of which can be summarized by two equa-
such as Sribny's (Gol'din and Lubashevski 1966), tions, the first being
which are derived from the Manning equation, would
therefore appear inapplicable to the phenomenon under
consideration. where y is the unit weight of the debris, S is the slope, h
There is a general consensus in the literature that the is the flow depth, k is a cross-section shape ~oefficient,~
flow regime near the peak of a debris flow surge is, in and v is the apparent dynamic viscosity of the debris.
fact, laminar (e.g. Pierson 1980; Takahashi 1981). Equation [5] relates to the Newtonian viscous flow
Circumstantial evidence pointing to this conclusion model (Sharp and Nobles 1953; Cuny 1966), but can be
includes the relative calmness of flow surfaces, the extended to Bingham and pseudoplastic flows (Yano
existence of boulder concentrations at the front, and the and Daido 1965; Johnson 1970) by replacing the
formation of levees, all of which imply a strong velocity dynamic viscosity with an apparent viscosity dependent
gradient. Experimental criteria based on Reynolds and on two material constants.
Hedstrom numbers also point in the same direction
(Jeyapalan 1980). 3k is equal to 3 for a wide rectangular channel, approxi-
Given the assumption of laminar flow, the mean mately 5 for a trapezoidal one, and 8 for a semicircular
velocity, v, further depends on flow resistance. Several channel.

The second equation describes a dilatant model based Bagnold (1954) used the principle of effective stress
on the empirical work of Bagnold (1954) with nonplastic to show that the friction slope Sf of such a dispersion
grain-fluid dispersions. For a wide channel: depends primarily on the volume concentration C of
solid particles (those that are not suspended by turbu-
where E, is a dimensional coefficient inversely propor-
tional to the volume concentration of solid particles in (@- P) c
[71 tan a
the debris. This model was suggested for debris torrents Sf = ( u - p)C + p
by Bagnold (1968), Breitfuss and Scheidegger (1974), where a is the dynamic friction angle of the particles,
and Takahashi (1978, 1980). equal to approximately 30" for well-graded cohesionless
The two criteria are rheologically quite similar, i.e., material (Hungr 198 l), o is the rock density, and p is the
they do not represent very different velocity distribu- bulk density of the slurry of fines and water.
tions (Takahashi 1978). It is also possible that some Both the content of coarse grains and consequently Sf
flows move in the transition regime between the two are known to be the largest in the bouldery surge front
models. and to decrease with distance towards the tail. One could
The maximum depth - velocity trends of both assume the velocity of the entire surge as uniform in
Canadian and Japanese4 (Okuda et al. 1980) observa- accordance with the theory of uniformly progressive
tions plotted in Fig. 4 correspond well to [6] with a E, flow (Chow 1959). Then, placing the origin of a moving
equal to 3.25 (m-'I2 s-I). Equation [5] with a viscosity of coordinate system at the front and measuring x in the
3.0kPa-s provides a similarly good fit at flow depths upstream direction, the surface profile of the surge is
greater than 2 m, although it appears to underestimate given by the roll wave equation:
the velocities at smaller depths. Either equation can be
used as a reasonably accurate basis for velocity predic-
tions. The design of stream channels and debris barrier where h is flow depth and S bed slope. At the surge peak,
spillways in the Squamish Highway project was based where h is maximum, Sf must always equal S. There-
on [5]. fore, from [7], C at the surge peak is a function of bed
The empirical indication of Fig. 4, showing that data slope only. Further, because the parameter E, of [6]
from different events and locations can be fitted by a depends mostly on C, the flow resistance (viscosity) of
flow equation with a unique viscosity value, is surpris- the peak must be uniquely related to bed slope. This is
ing. One would expect viscosity to depend on the not to say that C changes in response to bed slope.
concentration of solid particles within the flow. The Rather, the surge peak moves its position relative to the
coefficient E, is indeed known to do so from Bagnold's front, so as to find the location where the appropriate
(1954) work. The following section shows that, if the concentration exists.
analysis is confined to that region of the moving surge Since velocity estimates are usually made in the
which is near its point of maximum discharge (peak), the vicinity of the fan apex, where only a limited range of
concept of a unique concentration and viscosity can be slope angles occur, the viscosity of the peak flow can
plausible. Fortunately, it is the peak velocity and flow reasonably be assumed as unique and transferable from
depth that are critical for design purposes and are one event to another and also among different streams.
reflected in the mud-line observations of debris torrent An exception would perhaps arise in materials with
channels. substantial content of plastic fines.
Debris torrent surge profile Ahead of the peak, the friction slope exceeds the bed
Debris torrent material is characteristically well slope and, according to [6], the surge front must rise
graded (Pierson 1980; Hungr 198 1). Nevertheless, it upstream. Behind the peak, the friction slope falls below
could be regarded as a two-phase dispersion of solid the bed slope by virtue of the lower concentration, and a
grains "floating" in a heavy slurry of finer particles gradual decrease in flow height is observed. The relative
suspended by water turbulence. The coastal British lengths of the front, peak, and tail regions are deter-
Columbia torrents typically contain less than 5% of mined by the overall gradation of the debris and the
silt and clay-sized particles. An eyewitness of the maturity of the longitudinal sorting. Nevertheless, the
November 1983 torrent on Charles Creek compared the apparent viscosity of the surge peak is nearly constant
appearance of this interstitial fluid to sandy mine and equal to approximately 3 x lo6 times that of water
for the cases introduced so far.
Figure 5 shows a typical continuous record of a debris
?he Japanese data represent 3 years of velocity observa- torrent surge obtained in Japan, which confirms the
tions at one station in the Kamikamihori Valley (at Dam 6a). concept of constant velocity and varied discharge as
The average bed slope is given as 8.2' at this location. described above. The presented viscosity values would,
672 CAN. GEOTECH. J. VOL. 21, 1984

m f l o w c o n f i n e d i n a channel

L f l o w d e p o s i t i n g on an
0 O open runout surface
a EVENT - see Table 3
EO Om@ 0
+I I I I I

FIG. 5. Surface velocity and discharge of a debris torrent

surge in the Kamikamihori Valley, Japan, recorded by a spatial z
filter speedometer (Okuda et al. 1980).

in this case, apply only within the period between 8 and

15 s. The peak region would be approximately 35 m
long. The concave tail profile of the surge may be due to
the gradual onset of turbulence, which causes a renewed
increase in the friction slope.
Angle of deposition U N I T D I S C H A R G E (m3/(s.m))

Field observations indicate that there is a certain FIG.6. Bed slope at the onset of deposition, as a function of
limiting slope angle, below which a debris torrent surge discharge.
loses its ability to travel at uniform velocity, decelerates,
and begins to deposit the bulk of its material.
The conditions for the beginning of deposition would
be given by [7], if one could assume uniform concentra-
tion. However, owing to the longitudinal decrease in
concentration, [7] and [8] merely indicate that the surge
peak gradually swells and moves back with falling bed
slope angles.
The friction slope of the frontal boulder accumula-
tion, which is relatively free of fines, appears to be
around 16", since partial deposition of the frontal mass
in the form of levees and boulder pockets usually begins
to occur below this angle. The same angle is obtained
from [7] on the assumption that the material is poorly
graded and that the carrying fluid is water. However,
provided that the flow is well confined within the
channel, the more liquid material flowing behind can
build up a sufficient depth gradient to continue pushing FIG. 7. Lower channel of the November 1983 torrent on
the frcnt forward. Whenever the confinement is inter- Charles Creek, Squamish Highway. The pocket of boulders in
rupted, perhaps by a short wider channel section, a the right forefront was deposited in response to a momentary
pocket of debris is deposited (Fig. 6). When the flow widening of channel at a subdivision road. The abutments of a
finally reaches a sufficiently wide channel, the surge destroyed railway bridge and tom rails can be observed in
peak collapses and the bulk of the coarse frontal material middle distance.
is rapidly discarded to the sides and full-scale deposition every case, the point of deposition also coincided with
begins (Broscoe and Thomson 1969). the exit from a confined channel. The angle of 10"
Figure 7 is a summary of the bed slope angles at the appears significant to the start of deposition and, as will
start of deposition for several events, correlated with the be shown later, also approximates in many cases the
estimated discharge per unit width. All of the full-scale friction slope during subsequent decelerating move-
discharge events observed so far in the south coastal ment. The same angle has independently been desig-
region began deposition near 10- 12", including torrents nated as the deposition angle by an empirical study in
derived from both crystalline and volcanic rocks. In Japan (Ikeya 1981).

Two low-discharge events on Charles Creek deposit- slope angle, and v, and h, are the entry velocity and
ed on slopes of approximately 14". In one of these, the depth respectively.
deposition occurred in a slightly widened channel at the Assuming that Sf equals tan 10" and that v, and h, can
foot of a waterfall, and in the second the front initially be obtained from the design discharge by means of [5]
stopped at a low timber bridge. This raises the question or [6], the runout distance can now be calculated.
whether channel confinement is more decisive or less Figure 8 shows very good agreement with field obsewa-
decisive as a factor than the bed slope angle. If it is more, tions. This is important, because the application of the
one could conceive high discharge events either passing runout equation incorporates all of the techniques
through considerably flatter angles than 10" while con- developed above: discharge, velocity, as well as deposi-
fined, or depositing at steeper angles when allowed to tion angle.
expand. Such examples have not yet been documented in The velocity of the decelerating front can also be
this area and the question has still to be resolved. predicted from the same theory (Appendix):
For the interim, it is suggested to assume a range of
deposition angles between 10 and 14" for unconfined
flows and 8 and 12" for channelled ones. For the where x is the distance from the entry. The theory
purposes of design, one should select the conservative describes the deposition of a single debris train, at peak
end of the range, i.e., upper when it is needed to keep the discharge. Experimental (Takahashi and Yoshida 1979)
flow contained and moving within the channel, and and field observations both show that successive debris
lower when estimating runout and velocity. trains deposit beside each other in a fanlike manner.
The degree of confinement should, of course, be
considered in relation to the discharge. The suggested Superelevation and run-up
criterion for sufficient confinement is a depth-to-width Superelevation of debris torrent flow in bends of the
ratio of not less than 0.2. Thus, within a given channel channel is important for two reasons. Firstly, it needs to
cross section, low discharge surges will deposit at be determined for design, to provide sufficient freeboard
steeper angles than large ones. Trapezoidal channel on the outside of bends and to design deflector dykes.
cross sections with narrow bases should therefore be Secondly, differential height of mud lines in curving
used where it is necessary to convey a wide range of channels can be used to estimate the velocity of past
debris discharges without deposition. events (Fig. 9).
In analogy with snow avalanches (Mears 1981),
Runout distance superelevation of debris torrents can be calculated by the
Once deposition begins, gradual deceleration of the forced vortex equation:
surge front follows within a certain runout distance.
Snow avalanche runout is calculated from energy or
momentum conservation principles, assuming that the
friction slope of the avalanche during runout remains a where Ah is the elevation difference between the two
constant, or a function of velocity only (Voellmy 1955; sides of the flow, b is the surface width of the flow, v
Salm 1966). A similar approach can be applied to debris the mean velocity, r the mean curvature radius, and k a
torrents. correction coefficient defined below.
Takahashi and Yoshida (1979) formulated the mo- The forced vortex equation is more appropriate to
mentum conservation equation for a steadily moving debris torrents than the free vortex equation used to
debris front travelling over a surface with a constant low calculate superelevation for water, owing to the high
inclination, after leaving a steeply angled channel. viscosity and vertical sorting, which restrict lateral
When simplified and combined with the concept of a displacement within the flow.
constant friction slope, Sf (Appendix), the equation Mizuyama and Uehara (1981) and Ikeya and Uehara
reduces to (1982) showed by experiments and detailed field obser-
vations that the actual superelevation may be 2.5-5
times larger than that predicted by [13], possibly
where X, is the runout distance, because of the same causes as cited in the previous
paragraph. To achieve conservative predictions, it is
[lo] v = v,c0s(0,- 0)
gh, cos 0,
I recommended to use k = 5 to calculate superelevation
for design and k = 2.5 to calculate velocity from
superelevation data. The latter method was used to
calculate some of the velocities shown in Table 3.
[ l 11 G = g(Sf cos 0 - sin 0)
Run-up against barriers placed in the path of a debris
and 0 is the runout slope angle, 0, is the entry channel torrent can be estimated from [9], with the angle 0 now
674 CAN. GEOTECH. J. VOL. 21. 1984

Port A l i c e . 1973
( N a s m i t h and Mercer 19791


runout) ,,/

Refer t o Table 3
/" for event numbers

0 b a s e d on t h e c r i t i c a l run-up angle of 15'

200 400 600
FIG. 8. Comparison of runout distances calculated from [9] o1 1 0°
I 15O 20°
and observed. APPROACH S L O P E ANGLE ( 0 )

c r ~ t ~ c run-up
al surface

FIG. 10. Maximum run-up prediction by means of [9]

the predicted run-up is substantially greater than the

velocity head, because of the thrust of material travel-
ling behind the front.
Dynamic thrust and impact
In the case of barriers that are nearly perpendicular to
the flow direction, the most significant thrust is that of
the debris front in which there is little lateral velocity
FIG. 9. Superelevation in a double channel bend of the variation. The front stops at the barrier after the initial
Wahleach B torrent, near Hope, B.C. The flow reached up to impact and forms an inert mass, which will, to some
the eye level of the person standing on the left bank, but was
approximately 3 m lower on the opposite side. The estimated
extent, shield the structure from subsequent loading.
velocity and discharge based on these observations are 7.9 m/s Dynamic thrust loading should therefore be calculated
and 284 m3/s respectively. using the momentum equation, taking the entire peak of
the surge as a single flow prism travelling with a uniform
being negative and equal to the run-up slope angle. velocity equal to the mean velocity.
When different values are tried, the angle 15" always The momentum equation is
gives the maximum vertical run-up distance. For the
purposes of design, one should therefore assume that a [I41 F = p ~ v ~ s i n p
debris surge could deposit a wedge of material in front of where F is the total thrust force, A is the flow cross-
the barrier, upon which the subsequent flow could climb section area, p the debris density, v the mean velocity,
to the maximum height. Run-up design could, under and p the least angle between the face of the barrier and
such conditions, use Fig. 10, which is based on [9]. the flow direction.
For purposes of comparison, Fig. 10a also indicates It is recommended that the above load should be
the corresponding velocity head v,2/2g. In most cases, distributed over an area as wide as the expected debris

where P is the impact force in kN, M is the boulder mass

in Mg, v is the velocity in m/s, and K is a stiffness
For a simple beam:

where EI is the bending stiffness and L the length. This

indicates that flexible structural members are more
efficient in resisting impact than stiff ones. For example,
a steel beam is more efficient than a concrete beam with
the same bending capacity.
FIG.11. Concrete bridge beam demolished by point impact
during the November 1983 debris torrent on Charles Creek, The quantitative approaches described in this paper
Squamish Highway. Notice torn prestressing cables suspended have been used extensively by the authors to facilitate
from mid-span. solution of many design problems related to debris
torrents. Some applications are provided below to illu-
train, but about 1.5 times greater in height, to account strate procedures.
for the forming of a stagnant wedge in front of the toe of To determine the area subject to direct overrun by
the bamer. debris, it is necessary to estimate the design torrent
Point impact loads due to boulders carried in the flow magnitude by [I] or [2], discharge from Fig. 3 or [4],
may be more important for the design of certain and runout from [9]. The rules for recognition of the start
structural elements. For example, Fig. 11 shows pre- of deposition are summarized in Fig. 6. The end of
stressed bridge beams destroyed by the November 1983 deposition is defined by extending the runout distance
torrent on Charles Creek. The same surge tore a con- past the point where the slope angle equals 10". Areas
tinuously welded standard rail stretched freely across the beyond the end of deposition are likely to be affected
creek after the railway bridge deck was washed out by a only by flooding. Equation [12] can be used to outline
previous surge. the high velocity hazard region on the depositional area.
The magnitude of point impact depends on the To design a bridge clearance, the magnitude and
momentum of the largest particle involved on contact discharge must be determined as above. Velocity and
deformation and on the deflection of the impacted flow depth can be obtained from Fig. 4, making
structure. adjustments for channel shape if necessary. It is recom-
With regard to boulder size, there is practically no mended that a " generous clearance above the estimated
limit, given the presence of glacial deposits in most flow surface be provided to allow for rapidly moving
regions of Canada. The fast-moving boulder size is projecting particles, such as logs. A safety clearance of
therefore limited only by the capacity of the design 3 m is being used on the Squamish Highway. The bridge
torrent to carry it. It is suggested that the design boulder entry should have a prismatic, straight channel as far as
be assumed a sphere with a diameter equal to the flow possible, with a gradient exceeding the estimated
depth. deposition angle for a range of discharge values.
Contact deformation is important only in the case of To design a deflection wall or embankment, the
inflexible structures such as abutments and heavy bridge magnitude, discharge, depth, and velocity of the design
decks. The impact force can be estimated using the torrent is required as above. The banking height can be
Hertz equation (Timoshenko and Goodier 1969). How- estimated by [13] and the dynamic thrust by [15].
ever, the elastic contact forces thus estimated are
extremely conservative when the momentum of the Conclusions
boulder exceeds a few hundred kg.m/s, and should be This paper details a first attempt at quantitative
divided by a factor of about 10 to account for contact prediction of debris torrent behaviour in Canada. Design
crushing. of debris torrent remedial measures in other countries,
For flexible elements such as beams, structural especially in Europe, relies heavily on site-specific
deflection is more important than contact deformation. experience of long duration, sometimes of several
Equating the kinetic energy of the boulder with work centuries (Eisbacher 1982). Such experience is not
expanded in bending deflection, one obtains available in Canada. The authors have therefore at-
676 CAN. GEOTECH. J. VOL. 21, 1984

tempted to combine theoretical understanding of the IKEYA, H. 1981. A method of designation for area in danger of
phenomenon with detailed observations, to obtain a debris flow. In Erosion and sediment transport in Pacific
semiempirical design method. Rim steeplands. International Association of Science Hy-
It is emphasized that these procedures require more drology Publication 132, Christchurch, New Zealand, pp.
thorough calibration to be generally applicable. Their 576-603.
IKEYA,H., and UEHARA, S. 1982. Debris flow in S-shaped
use in design may supplement, but should by no means channel curves. Japanese Civil Engineering Journal, 24, pp.
replace, the use of experience and informed judgement! 645-650 (in Japanese).
The importance of collecting quantitative data such as JACKSON, L. E., JR. 1979. A catastrophic glacial outburst
debris volumes, flow cross sections, and velocities from flood (jokulhlaup) mechanism for debris flow generation at
as many debris torrent events a s possible must b e the Spiral Tunnels, Kicking Horse River basin, British
stressed. With these provisions, it is believed that the Columbia. Canadian Geotechnical Journal, 16, pp. 806-
methodology represents a rational approach to design 813.
and can constitute a useful tool in the development of JEYAPALAN, K. 1980. Analyses of flow failures of mine
facilities to cope with debris torrent hazards. tailings impoundments. Ph.D. thesis, University of Califor-
nia, Berkeley, CA, 300 p.
Acknowledgements JOHNSON,A. - M . 1970. -physical processes in Geology.
Freeman-Cooper, San Francisco, CA, 577 p.
The authors are indebted to the British Columbia KELLERHALS, R. 1970. Runoff routing through steep natural
Ministry of Transportation and Highways and in particu- channels. ASCE, Journal of the Hydraulics Division, 96,
lar those personnel who created a stimulating and pp. 2201-2217.
productive contract atmosphere under which much of LISTER,D. R., MORGAN, G. C., VANDINE,D. F., and KERR,
this work was carried out. Thanks are also due Mr. D. F. J. W. G. 1984. Debris torrents in Howe Sound, British
VanDine of Thurber Consultants, who provided the Columbia. Proceedings, IVth International Symposium on
authors with recent research articles obtained during his Landslides, Toronto, Canada.
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structures in the runout zone. United States Department
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BAGNOLD, R. A. 1954. Experiments on a gravity-free disper- RM-84, 28 p.
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America Bulletin, 64, pp. 547-560.
+ { ( a - p)C + p ) h , v ~ c o s (0, - 0)
SKERMER, N. A. 1981. Report to Coroners Department on + .tgh; cos 0, cos (0, - 0) { ( a - np)Ck + np)
"M" Creek debris flowslide, West Vancouver, British - & ( a - n p ) g C h cos 0 tan ci
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vesting, mass erosion and steepland forest geomorphology distance travelled by the front from its entry to the runout
in the Pacific Northwest. In Geomorphology and engineer- surface; a , p, and C are the grain density, interstitial
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Inc., Stroudsburg, PA, pp. 199-221. (assumed constant); n is a coefficient to account for the
TAKAHASHI, R. 1978. Mechanical characteristics of debris gradual settling of fines in the fluid, which can be
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1153-1 169 and Yoshida 1979); k is a coefficient of effective lateral
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Institute, Kyoto University, Japan, 22 B-2. force transferred from the fluid still in the channel to the
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flooding hazards, Highway 99, Howe Sound. Report to the base.
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nical Colloquium presented at the 37th Canadian Geotech-
nical Conference, Toronto, Canada. where t is time.
VARNES, D. J. 1978. Slope movement types and processes. In Substituting from [A21 to [ A l l , assuming k = 1.0 as
landslides, analysis and control. Edited by R. L. Schuster, appropriate for a fluid-like dispersion, rearranging and
and R. J. Krizek. Transportation Research Board Special substituting from [7] for the terms involving density and
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This can b e solved with boundary conditions at the
entry and end of runout to obtain [9]-[I I].
If a similar solution was made neglecting the third and
Appendix. The runout equation of Takahashi and fourth terms of [A!.], one would recover the runout
Yoshida (1979) equation of Voellmy (1955) with zero turbulence:
Assumptions v,' --
[A41 XL = -
After leaving from a steep channel with bed angle 0,, G
g(Sf cos 0 - sin 0)
velocity v, and flow depth h,, the flow front travels at a
uniformly decreasing velocity, v, over the runout This simplified equation tends to underestimate run-
surface, inclined at 0. Both v, and h, are conservatively out by a factor of approximately two, but would be
assumed constant with time. Momentum conservation appropriate for surges of very short duration, where the
gives momentum influx is terminated early.