Simple ground-water flow analyses can clarify complex empirical relations between rainfall and landslide motion. Here we present detailed data on rainfall, ground-water flow, and repetitive seasonal motion that occurred from 1982 to 1985 at Minor Creek landslide in northwestern California, and we interpret these data in the context of physically based theories. We find that landslide motion is closely regulated by the direction and magnitude of near-surface hydraulic gradients and by waves of pore pressure caused by intermittent rainfall.
Diffusive propagation of pore-pressure waves accompanies downward ground-water flow along nearly vertical hydraulic gradients that exist in most of the landslide. Field data combined with a pore-pressure diffusion analysis show that single rainstorms typically produce short-period waves that attenuate before reaching the landslide base. In contrast, seasonal rainfall cycles produce long-period waves that modify basal pore pressures, but only after time lags that range from weeks to months. Such tune lags can depend on antecedent moisture storage and can explain variable delays between the onset of the wet season and seasonal landslide motion.
Limit-equilibrium analysis shows that when seasonal pressure waves reach the landslide base, they establish a critical distribution of effective stress that delicately triggers landslide motion. The critical effective-stress balance is extremely sensitive to the direction and magnitude of hydraulic gradients.
Although pervasively downward gradients instigate seasonal motion, we infer from theory and limited data that ground water also may circulate locally in near-surface cells. The circulation can further reduce the landslide's frictional strength, particularly in areas of nearly horizontal ground-water flow that occur beneath steep faces of hummocks. Hummocky topography that results from slope instability may therefore cause ground-water flow that perpetuates instability.