Landslide hazards in Watauga County, North Carolina

Dave Christie Environmental Sciences Program, Appalachian State University, Boone, NC

The purpose of this research is to analyze the terrain of Watauga County, North Carolina and develop models predicting slope instability and landslide probability. Development in Boone, NC was also analyzed to determine if any existing buildings and infrastructure were at risk. Slope and soil type, as well as previous landslide occurrence were all analyzed and reclassified using Geographic Information System (GIS) software to produce predictive models of slope instability and, consequently, landslide hazards. In Watauga County the area of highest risk was the northwestern region, including the towns of Vilas and Sugar Grove, curving towards the center (near Boone), with an additional high-risk area in the southeast around the town of Deep Gap. There were a few isolated areas in Boone (southwestern and central, as well as Howard’s Knob to the north) that posed some landslide risk to a few buildings and roads, but as a whole the town was not at risk.

There are many types of slope failures, all of which can be hazardous. Landslides occur throughout the United States, primarily in mountainous, hilly regions and along the Pacific coast [1]. Landslides cause over $1 billion in damages and are responsible for between 25 and 50 deaths in the nation annually [1, 2]. Landslides can damage buildings, property, utilities, roads and bridges [3]. Landslides can be triggered in several ways, including heavy rains, earthquakes, blasting, and development on steep slopes [3, 4]. Landslide risk models and maps are essential to inform governments, planning committees, developers, and the general public about the potential hazards of slope movement and to provide ways to mitigate the impact of such disasters, especially if the models can predict which areas are most likely to experience slope instability. In Watauga County North Carolina, more development is occurring on unstable slopes, which may increase the risk of landslides [2]. Since Watauga County is mountainous and receives a significant amount of rainfall, approximately 150 cm annually, the risk of landslides and slope instabilities may be high, especially in areas with steep slopes and areas undergoing development [5]. For Watauga County, the overwhelming cause of landslides historically has been intense rainfall. The Southeast Hurricane of

1940 was devastating to the East Coast, affecting Georgia, South Carolina, North Carolina, Virginia, and parts of Tennessee [6]. Watauga County received between 25.4 and 38.1 cm of rain in just a few days, triggering an overwhelming majority of the landslides on record. The dominant type of landslide during the 1940 hurricane was the debris flow. A debris flow is typically a rapid mass movement of material, which includes loose soil, rock, and organic matter [1, 3]. This type of landslide combines with water to form a slurry, which can range in consistency from thin and watery to rather thick [1]. Debris flows tend to occur on steep slopes and can reach speeds up to 35 mph [1, 3]. Since Watauga County is in a mountainous region, it is not surprising that so many of the landslides have been debris flows due to the many steep slopes in the area. The second most common form of landslide in Watauga County has been the debris blowout which is not surprising because this area tends to receive high velocity winds on a fairly regular basis. In this study, historical landslide data in Watauga County is combined with current slope and soil type data to assist in the prediction of landslide hazards in Watauga County and the Town of Boone, North Carolina.

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The data for this study was obtained through secondary sources, the majority of which came from Geographic Information Systems (GIS) data gathered primarily from North Carolina (NC) OneMap, an online GIS clearinghouse [7]. The data was downloaded and opened in ESRI ArcGIS (ESRI, 380 New York Street, Redlands, CA) software. ArcMap was used to generate the maps of Watauga County, North Carolina, and ArcScene was used to create the 3-dimensional visualizations. The boundary shapefile for Watauga County was downloaded from the Soil Data Mart [8]. A shapefile for the municipal boundaries for Boone was also obtained from the North Carolina Department of Transportation (NCDOT) [9]. A Watauga digital elevation model (DEM) in raster data format was downloaded from a remote GIS database as a base map for the research [10]. The Watauga area DEM was clipped to match the county boundary. From this model a slope map was generated, which showed the percent slope of the terrain throughout Watauga County (Figure 1). Percent slope is calculated using the fol-

lowing conversion:

%slope = 100 • tan(angle)


Here, tan(angle) is the ratio of slope height to horizontal length. Percent slope is more commonly used in slope regulations than degrees [2, 4]. This slope map was divided into four main categories: low, moderate, steep, and very steep slopes. The low slope range included values from 0-25%, the moderate slope range included values from 25-75%, the steep slope range included values from 75-150%, and the very steep slope included values between 150-325%. In general, the range of minimum slope for landslides to occur is between 15-25%, so 25% was chosen as the limit for the low slope category [2, 4, 11]. A hillshade map was also derived from the DEM to provide a visual aid for the layout of the terrain, resulting in a map of terrain that resembles a LIDAR (LIght Detection And Ranging) image. A dataset containing the recorded landslides of Watauga County through 2006 was downloaded, which contained information including the location, date and nature of the past

Figure 1. Percent Slope Map of Watauga County, North Carolina.
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landslides since 1940 [12]. Spatially detailed soil data for Watauga County was obtained from the Soil Data Mart [8]. The Soil Survey of Watauga County, North Carolina, a document describing the soil characteristics such as soil composition and elevation range, was used to correlate the map unit symbol abbreviations with their actual map unit symbols [8]. Data for buildings in and around Boone were obtained through a GIS remote database on the Appalachian State University Geography and Planning network. The historical landslide data was added to the map file and was displayed over the slope map. The raster values of the slopes on the map were joined to the landslide attribute table to provide a method of classifying the landslides. These were then classified using a quantile method, placing approximately equal amounts of landslides in each category. The soil map (SSURGO) [8] for Watauga County was overlaid with the Watauga DEM file [13]. The soil map was then spatially joined to the landslides. The soil polygons that contained landslides were selected from the new soil-landslide layer. These selected soil types were placed into a new layer. Each soil type was assigned a count of how many landslides were present in its layer. This soil type layer was converted from vector to raster data in order to allow for reclassification. Each soil type then had its number of landslides converted into a percentage, and was given a value from lowest percentage to highest. Any soil types that had the same percentage were assigned the same value. For example, the lowest percentage, 0.048%, was given a value of 1 so all the soil types with this percentage value were assigned a 1. These values were assigned to each soil type and the layer was reclassified to create a standard of comparison. There were 29 different classes for the reclassified soil layer. The slope map was then reclassified evenly into 29 classes in order to match the number of classes for soil type to ensure proper reclassification. The range of slopes was from between 0% to 325%, with one of the classes being just 0% slope. The reclassified soil layer was added to the reclassified slope layer to produce a layer that showed which of the soil types was most susceptible to re-activating the former landslides. This same method was applied to the entire soil map of Watauga County to produce a map of landslide risk using:

Table 1. The number of landslides found in each range of slopes from historical landslide data of Watauga County, North Carolina, in both percent and degrees.
Slope Range (percent) Degrees Number of Landslides

0-18 18-30 30-50 50-75 75-95 95-120 120-155 155-180 180-205 205-230 230-255 255-300 >300

0-10.2 10.2-16.7 16.7-26.6 26.6-36.9 36.9-43.5 43.5-50.2 50.2-57.2 57.2-60.9 60.9-64.0 64.0-66.5 66.5-68.6 68.6-71.6 >71.6

7 2 27 82 88 319 755 425 238 103 28 18 2

Landslide risk = [Reclassified soil layer] + [Reclassified slope layer]


The output layer adds the values of both of these layers to create a final ranking. The higher the ranking, the more likely a landslide will occur. The output layer was grouped into four categories of landslide risk: low, moderate, high and very high. These categories were divided evenly so that they contained 14 ranks each. This new map layer was overlaid on top of the hillshade map to give a good visual representation of the landslide risk throughout Watauga County. There was not enough data available to produce a factor of safety – the ratio of the resisting force of the slope to the disturbing force placed on it – for this scale of slope analysis. Many variables can be taken into consideration, including the angle the slope can fail, the unit weight of the soil, and the cohesion of the soil. More sophisticated calculations using a wider range of parameters would serve to more confidently determine slopes stability and landslide probability [14]. Factors such as soil cohesion and unit weight were unavailable, so more precise measurements could not be made.

Table 1 shows the slope range in both percent


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Table 2. The association between soil type, landslide frequency, and the percentage of landslides corresponding to the Map Unit Symbols.
Map Unit Symbol Number of Landslides Percentage of Total Map Unit Symbol Number of Landslides Percentage of Total


10 50 272 24 6 4 26 17 87 1 3 5 1 28 108 225 44 494 4 4 2 6 33 102

0.5 2.4 13.0 1.1 0.3 0.2 1.2 0.8 4.2 <0.1 0.1 0.2 <0.1 1.3 5.2 11 2.1 24.0 0.2 0.2 0.1 0.3 1.6 4.9

CtD CtE EvD EvE FaD FaE NkA PuD PuE PuF SkD SnC SnD SoD SoE Ud UkC UkD UkE UkF UnF WaC WaD

6 38 5 13 1 10 1 7 89 31 1 4 3 3 9 1 1 17 98 159 4 2 34

0.3 1.8 0.2 0.6 <0.1 0.5 <0.1 0.3 4.3 1.5 <0.1 0.2 0.1 0.1 0.4 <0.1 <0.1 0.8 4.7 7.6 0.2 0.1 1.6

and degrees, and the number of landslides that have occurred in each group, based on available historical landslide data for Watauga County, North Carolina. According to the United State Department of Agriculture (USDA), the Chestnut-Edneyville complex (CkE) soil has an overall loamy texture but is also described as stony. The CkE soil type is classified as being the most susceptible soil type for landslides in Watauga County. The next most susceptible soil to water erosion, the AsheChestnut complex (AcF), is classified as generally loamy but is also listed as very rocky. The third most susceptible soil to water erosion, ChestnutAshe complex (ChF, more Chestnut than Ashe soil in composition), is also classified as loamy [8]. Table 2 shows the map unit symbols for each soil type, the number of historical landslides associVolume 1, 1st Edition • Spring 2011

ated with each soil type, and the percentage of landslides that fall into each category. Figure 1 (p. 15) shows the difference in percent slope throughout Watauga County. Figure 2 (pg. 18) shows the distribution of historical landslides categorized by slope. The areas prone to landslide reactivation are illustrated in Figure 3 (pg. 19) and Figure 4 (pg. 20), which shows the total landslide risk for Watauga County. Figure 5 (pg. 21) shows the landslide risk for Boone. Figure 6 (pg. 22) shows the number of historical landslides that fall into different slope ranges. Figure 7 (pg. 22) is a graph of the number of landslides that occur in each soil type. Figure 8 (pg. 23) shows the distribution of Chestnut-Edneyville complex that has a slope between 120-155%.


Figure 2. Total number of historical landslides in Watauga County, North Carolina. Each landslide is classified based on the percent slope on which it occurred. The slope classification is based on a modified quantile method in which each class contains roughly the same number of values.

The southeastern portion of Watauga County has experienced a high concentration of slope movements along moderate to very steep slopes (Figure 1, pg. 19, and Figure 2). The western/ northwestern portion of the county, near the North Carolina/Tennessee border, also has had a high concentration of historic landslides on a range of moderate to very steep slopes. These were the two areas with the most pronounced grouping of landslides. There has been some scattering of landslides in the southeastern portion of the county, more sporadically placed than the other two areas but frequent nonetheless (Figure 2). The Town of Boone has only had a few landslides that have occurred within its municipal boundaries, but several additional landslides have occurred just outside of the border, including several noticeable occurrences on Howard’s Knob. The Chestnut-Edneyville complex soil type has had the highest landslide frequency, and was

therefore classified as the most susceptible soil for slope movement in the study area, accounting for 23.6% of all landslides. The Ashe-Chestnut complex was the next most susceptible soil type, covering 13% of the total landslides. The third most susceptible soil type for landslide occurrence was the Chestnut-Ashe complex, with 10.8% of landslides occurring on it (Figure 6). Of the 2087 landslide occurrences, 2067 were composed of debris. Of these debris type landslides, 292 were blowouts, 106 were composites (a combination of a slide and a flow), 19 were general slides, and 1650 were flows. The remaining 20 landslide types were earth, with 2 blowouts, one slide, and 17 flows. There is a large extent of slope steepness in Watauga County, ranging from 0.833% up to 324.96% slope, according to the slope map generated from the Watauga DEM file. The results from the reclassification of soils shows that the area from the northwest curving towards the middle of the county (near the towns of Vilas

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Figure 3. Landslide Re-occurrence Probability in Watauga County, North Carolina, based on soil types and slope. The areas are ranked by value based on probability of landslide occurrence.

and Sugar Grove) has the most risk for landslide occurrence, in addition to the southeast portion of the county (near the town of Deep Gap) (See Figure 4, pg. 20). There were a few isolated areas in Boone that showed a fairly high risk for landslides, with risk appearing in the southeastern portion of the town, the center, and the eastern portion, as well as some risk just north of Boone including Howard’s Knob (Figure 5, pg. 21). For landslide reoccurrence, the most likely regions to experience such an event were the northwest portion of the county and a small part of the southeast. An area of lower risk was established in the northeastern part of the map. A small part of the southwestern portion of Boone had a moderate risk of landslide reactivation (Figure 3). Chestnut-Edneyville complex contained the highest percentage of landslides. The slope range that had the highest number of landslides was between 120% and 155%. Figure 8 (pg. 23) shows the locations of these soil types that fall within this slope range, indicating the
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most susceptible soil type to slope failure.

Slope steepness and soil type play major roles in landslide susceptibility. There are quite a few properties of soil that affect stability including composition, texture, and other factors. The Chestnut-Edneyville complex is the soil type most likely to produce a landslide, and the slope range of 120-155% is the slope range with the highest potential to cause a landslide. Based on slopes, soil types, and historical data, the area west and northwest of Boone (near the towns of Vilas and Sugar Grove) tended to have the most risk for landslides. The area to the southeast of Boone (Deep Gap) also had a large area of high risk. Boone itself had a few areas that posed risk to slope instability, primarily the southwestern and central portions of the town, with notable risk just north of Boone around Howard’s Knob. As a whole, the infrastructure in Boone remained largely unthreatened by land19

Figure 4. Risk Assessment for Landslides in Watauga County, North Carolina, based on landslide frequency, soil type, and slope. These areas are ranked based on probability of landslide occurrence. The urban areas are visible in blue, with the municipal boundary for Boone visible in the center. slides. The areas that were affected included a neighborhood in the southwest and perhaps a few streets in the central area. The buildings and streets just south of Howard’s Knob showed some risk of being damaged by landslides, but the majority of the town appeared to be fairly stable. It should be noted that the methods used and the results shown herein should be interpreted as strictly a high-level exercise to possibly direct further inquiry – planning and policy decisions should be guided by a more thorough analysis of landslide hazard probabilities. cessed 18 April 2011. http://www.oregon. gov/LCD/HAZ/docs/landslides/05_landslide.pdf Highland, L. M., and Bobrowsky, Peter. The Landslide Handbook – A Guide to Understanding Landslides. Reston, VA. U.S. Geological Survey Circular. 2008. Accessed 19 March 2011. circ/1325/pdf/C1325_508.pdf “Infrastructure and Sustainability.” The Lawrence Group. Oct. 2009. Accessed 19 March 2011. boone2030/finalDocs/InfrastructureSustainability.pdf “Watauga County, NC.” Commerce Economic Development Center. North Carolina. February 2011. Accessed 24 April 2011. countyProfile/NC/37189.pdf Southeast Hurricane – August 10-18 1940. NOAA. National Climatic Data Center. Asheville, NC. Accessed 4/15/11. http://



[1] “Landslide Types and Processes.” USGS. July 2004. Accessed 8 April 2011. http://pubs. “Planning for Natural Hazards.” Landslide TRG. Oregon Department of Land Conservation & Development, Community Planning Workshop. Eugene, OR. July 2000. Ac-





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Figure 5. Potentially hazardous landslide areas in Boone, taking into account landslide frequency, soil type, and slope. Previous landslides are also visible in the image. Existing infrastructure shows which parts of the town may be damaged in the future by landslides. [7] Richard M. Wooten assisted by Rebecca Latham and Jeffery C. Reid. “Landslides” shapefile. North Carolina Geological Survey, Asheville, NC. Downloaded from: http://w w aspx?tabid=286 [8] Soil Survey of Watauga County, North Carolina. USDA, Natural Resources Conservation Service. 1999. Accessed 10 April 2011. [9] “Municipal Boundaries” shapefile. NCDOT. 14 Feb. 2011. Accessed 12 March 2011. [10] Watauga DEM file. USGS. Appalachian State University Geography and Planning Department. [11] “Landslide.” City of Roseville 2011 Multi-Hazard Mitigation Plan. City of Roseville, CaliVolume 1, 1st Edition • Spring 2011

fornia. Accessed 14 April 2011. http://www. asp?BlobID=19073 [12] “Landslides.” NC Geological Survey. Accessed 5 March 2011. http://www.geology. [13] Soil Survey Geographic (SSURGO) Database for Watauga County, North Carolina. USDA, Natural Resources Conservation Service. For Worth, TX. 2009. Accessed 12 April 2011. [14] Krishnamoorthy, Agrahara. “Factor of Safety of a Slope Subjected to Seismic Load.” EJGE. 2007. Accessed 30 April 2011. http://www.


Landslide Frequency by Slope Range
800 700 600 500 400 300 200 100 0
0-18 18-30 30-50 50-75 75-95 95-120 120-155 155-180 180-205 205-230 230-255 255-300 >300

Percent Slope

Figure 6. The number of historical landslides (vertical axis) based on their slope range. It is evident that the middle range of slope (between 95% and 205%) has been the most susceptible to landslides.

Landslide Frequency per Soil Type







Figure 7. The number of historical landslides (vertical axis) for each soil type.


AcD AcE AcF ArF BaE BoD BoE BoF BrF BuD BuF BwE CaC CaE CdE ChF CkD CkE CoD CoE CoF CsC CsD CsE CtD CtE EvD EvE FaD FaE NkA PuD PuE PuF SkD SnC SnD SoD SoE Ud UkC UkD UkE UkF UnF WaC WaD Soil Type

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Figure 8. The distribution of Chestnut-Edneyville complex, the most susceptible soil type, which falls within the range of 120-155% slope.

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