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Investigation of Geomorphic and Seismic Effects on the 1959 Madison Canyon, Montana, Landslide Using an Integrated Field, Engineering Geomorphology Mapping, and Numerical Modelling Approach

Abstract

We present an integrated approach to investigate the seismically triggered Madison Canyon landslide (volume = 20 Mm3), which killed 26 people in Montana, USA, in 1959. We created engineering geomorphological maps and conducted field surveys, long-range terrestrial digital photogrammetry, and preliminary 2D numerical modelling with the objective of determining the conditioning factors, mechanisms, movement behaviour, and evolution of the failure. We emphasise the importance of both endogenic (i.e. seismic) and exogenic (i.e. geomorphic) processes in conditioning the slope for failure and hypothesise a sequence of events based on the morphology of the deposit and seismic modelling. A section of the slope was slowly deforming before a magnitude-7.5 earthquake with an epicentre 30 km away triggered the catastrophic failure in August 1959. The failed rock mass rapidly fragmented as it descended the slope towards Madison River. Part of the mass remained relatively intact as it moved on a layer of pulverised debris. The main slide was followed by several debris slides, slumps, and rockfalls. The slide debris was extensively modified soon after the disaster by the US Army Corps of Engineers to provide a stable outflow channel from newly formed Earthquake Lake. Our modelling and observations show that the landslide occurred as a result of long-term damage of the slope induced by fluvial undercutting, erosion, weathering, and past seismicity, and due to the short-term triggering effect of the 1959 earthquake. Static models suggest the slope was stable prior to the 1959 earthquake; failure would have required a significant reduction in material strength. Preliminary dynamic models indicate that repeated seismic loading was a critical process for catastrophic failure. Although the ridge geometry and existing tension cracks in the initiation zone amplified ground motions, the most important factors in initiating failure were pre-existing discontinuities and seismically induced damage. Amplification played a secondary role.

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Acknowledgments

The authors gratefully acknowledge the comments and advice of two reviewers and the help of the US Forest Service, particularly Joanne Girvin. Diane Doser supplied seismogram records. Camille Christiansen and Jeanette Klassen assisted in the field. Brent Ward helped with the air photograph analysis. The US Geological Survey provided imagery. Research was funded through an NSERC scholarship to A. Wolter and NSERC Discovery Grants to D. Stead and J. J. Clague.

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Wolter, A., Gischig, V., Stead, D. et al. Investigation of Geomorphic and Seismic Effects on the 1959 Madison Canyon, Montana, Landslide Using an Integrated Field, Engineering Geomorphology Mapping, and Numerical Modelling Approach. Rock Mech Rock Eng 49, 2479–2501 (2016). https://doi.org/10.1007/s00603-015-0889-5

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Keywords

  • Madison Canyon landslide
  • Engineering geomorphology mapping
  • Endogenic and exogenic processes
  • Dynamic modelling in UDEC
  • Topographic and damage amplification
  • Seismic fatigue