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# COULOMB WEDGE ANALYSIS OF CUTS IN STEEP SLOPES

## Laurence D. Wesley, University of Auckland

Canadian Geotechnical Journal, 38, No 6, 1354 1359, 2001
ABSTRACT
Coulomb's trial wedge method for estimating the active force on retaining walls is applied to situations
where steep slopes at limiting equilibrium exist behind the walls. The analysis is applied initially to
slopes of dry cohesionless material; in this case the slope angle is equal to the friction angle of the
material. The analysis produces two interesting (and perhaps surprising) results. The first is that the
critical wedge angle equals the slope angle, and the critical wedge becomes a "slab" extending an
unlimited distance up the slope above the wall. The second is that as the inclination of the slope and
friction angle (which are equal) increase the active force on the wall decreases. The method is then
applied to more general slopes involving both cohesion and friction, as well as seepage. Back analysis
is first used to obtain combinations of cohesion and friction corresponding to limiting equilibrium;
these are then used in the wedge analysis. Similar results are obtained to those for the dry cohesionless
slope. The method provides a means of estimating required retaining forces for cuts made in steep
slopes of residual soil or partly weathered rock where estimation of strength parameters is often very
difficult.
INTRODUCTION:
Determining the forces needed to retain cuts in steep slopes is often a difficult undertaking,
especially if the slope material is not homogeneous, and ground water conditions are uncertain and
change with time. Slopes in residual soils in particular may consist partly of soil and partly of highly
weathered rock, containing considerable coarse material, so that the task of measuring or assigning
shear strength parameters to the material is difficult. Any method that gets around this difficulty is to
be welcomed, and it is the purpose of this paper to present one such method that makes use of a back
analysis approach. The starting point of the method is the assumption that the slope is of infinite extent,
and is in a state of limiting equilibrium. These assumptions may or may not be true, but it is often the
case that cuts need to be made in steep slopes of almost unlimited uphill extent, in which the margin of
safety against slip failure is already low. It is for slopes of this sort, illustrated in Figure 1, that the
method is intended.
W
a
t
e
r

t
a
b
l
e

v
a
r
i
a
b
l
e

(
?
)
P R e s i d u a l s o i l o r
h i g h l y w e a t h e r e d r o c k
c = ?
= ?
R e q u i r e d P = ?
/
/

S
t
e
e
p

s
l
o
p
e

o
f

u
n
l
i
m
i
t
e
d

e
x
t
e
n
t
.
From the assumption of limiting equilibrium in an infinite slope, soil strength parameters are
obtained by back analysis; these are then used in a conventional Coulomb wedge analysis to determine
the required force. This analysis produces some interesting (and perhaps surprising) results, both with
respect to the behaviour of the critical wedge, and with respect to the way the required forces vary with
steepness of slope. As the slope becomes steeper the force required to retain the cut becomes less.
For ease of explanation, it will be convenient to start with the simplest case, which is that of a slope (of
infinite extent) consisting of dry cohesionless material, to be retained by a frictionless wall. This will
be designated Case (a). In practice, retention of the slope may not involve a "wall" at all; ground
anchors or soil nailing may be used, involving a relatively thin facing or a segmental facing at the cut
face. The anchors or nails are installed as the cut proceeds. It was involvement with cuts and retaining
systems of this sort that first led the author to investigate the method of analysis described here. With
such retention systems the assumption of a frictionless wall is appropriate, as there can be no tendency
for the soil to move relative to the "wall".
BACK ANALYSIS AND COULOMB WEDGE APPLICATION.
Case of dry cohesionless material - Case (a).
The Coulomb method for the general case (Coulomb, 1776), involving both frictional and cohesive
components of soil strength, is illustrated in Figure 2. By analysing a series of trial wedges of varying
angle we can obtain a range of values of the force P needed to maintain stability. The maximum
value of P obtained in this way is equal to the resultant active earth force P
a
that would act on a
retaining wall.

W
C
R
P
a
W
C
R
P
a

A n g l e
P
P
a
Figure 2. The Coulomb method.
It is convenient to express the force P
a
in terms of the active earth pressure coefficient K
a
, where

2
2
1
H K P
a a
(1)
where H is the wall height and is the unit weight of the soil.
By doing this, we obtain a parameter independent of wall height and need no longer involve the wall
height H in the analysis.
For a dry cohesionless material, if the slope angle is and is at limiting equilibrium, then the
material friction angle must also be equal to . The value of K
a
can easily be determined
analytically and is given by:

( )
( )

tan
sin
cos cos
a
K
(2)
where is the angle of the wedge to the horizontal.
Putting equal to , this becomes:

( )

cos
cos cos
a
K
(3)
We can use this expression (or the more tedious graphical procedure), to investigate the relationship
between K
a
and , and obtain the maximum value corresponding to the critical wedge angle
c
. For the
purpose of this example we will assume a friction angle of 40
o
; the graph thus obtained is shown in
Figure 3. The form is unusual in that it does not show the usual peak; instead it is almost a straight line
with its peak value at = 40
o
. In other words the critical wedge angle is the same as the slope angle,
and the critical wedge is in fact no longer a wedge, but an infinite slab of constant depth parallel to
the surface of the slope. This result appears surprising; the wedge in effect becomes infinite, but the
required force to restrain it remains finite.
4 0 4 1 4 2 4 5 5 0 5 5
0 . 8
0 . 6
0 . 4
0 . 2
A
c
t
i
v
e

p
r
e
s
s
u
r
e

c
o
e
f
f
i
c
i
e
n
t

K
a
S l o p e a n g l e =
= f r i c t i o n a n g l e
= 4 0

o
Figure 3. Determination of K by trial wedges for a dry cohesionless slope
with angle = = 40
o
.
As the reader may be aware, analytical solutions are available for both the peak value of K (= K
a
)
and the critical angle (=
c
) for this case of a dry cohesionless material (see for example Jumikis,
1962). For the case of zero wall friction these are:
( )
2
2
cos
sin sin
1
cos
1
]
1

a
K
(4)
( ) ( ) ( ) ( ) [ ] cot tan tan tan tan + +
c
(5)
We can use these expressions to investigate the way the coefficient K
a
, and the angle
c
, vary as the
inclination of the retained slope (still with a value of 40
o
) is increased in steps from 30
o
toward the
limiting value of 40
o
. The results are shown in Figures 4 and 5. In interpreting these figures, it should
be remembered that it is only the slope with = 40
o
that is at limiting equilibrium.
4 0 5 0 6 0 7 0
0 . 6
0 . 4
0 . 2

0
W e d g e a n g l e ( d e g r e e s )
C
o
e
f
f
i
c
i
e
n
t

K
a

=
3
0
= 3 5
= 3 8

=
4
0
3 9 . 8
3 9 . 5
P = 0 . 5 K H
a

2

/ o
= 4 0

Figure 4 Values of K versus wedge angle for dry cohesionless slopes with = 40
o
,
and varying slope angle .
Fig.4 shows graphs of K
a
versus for each slope angle. It is seen that as increases, the value of K
a
increases as expected, and the position of the peak value of K
a
moves from the right to the left of the
graph. The graphs are seen to have progressively sharper peaks. In the limiting situation of = , the
critical wedge angle also becomes equal to and , and the peak value of K
a
coincides with the left
axis where equals . In other words, the inclination of the critical wedge decreases as the slope angle
increases, and becomes progressively closer to the slope angle. Figure 5 shows graphs of K
a
and
c
versus the slope angle . For the limiting case when = , these equations become:
K
a
cos
2
(6)

c
= (= ) (7)
where
c
is the critical value of the wedge angle .

2 5 3 0 3 5 4 0
0 . 2
0 . 8
0 . 6
0 . 4
7 0
6 0
5 0
4 0
S l o p e a n g l e
A
c
t
i
v
e

c
o
e
f
f
i
c
i
e
n
t

K
a
C
r
i
t
i
c
a
l

w
e
d
g
e

a
n
g
l
e

c
C
r
i
t
i
c
a
l

w
e
d
g
e

a
n
g
l
e

c
C
o
e f f i c i e n
t K a
M a t e r i a l f r i c t i o n
a n g l e = 4 0
/ o

Figure 5. Variation in K and critical wedge angle
c
with slope angle for a dry
cohesionless slope with constant value of 40
o
.
Equation (7) confirms what the graphs in Figs. 3, 4, and 5 demonstrate, namely that the critical
wedge angle is the same as the slope inclination. However the solution for K
a
given in equation (6) also
illustrates another significant and perhaps surprising point, namely that as the value of (= )
increases, the value of K
a
decreases. The graph of K
a
versus slope angle is given in Figure 6. K
a
steadily declines from an initial value of unity when = 0, to a value of zero when = 90
o
.
S l o p e A n g l e
A
c
t
i
v
e

P
r
e
s
s
u
r
e

C
o
e
f
f
i
c
i
e
n
t

K
a
Figure 6. Active pressure coefficient K
a
for walls retaining dry cohesionless slopes at
limiting equilibrium ( = ).
We can continue on from this point and investigate slopes with seepage present and consisting of
materials having both cohesive and frictional components of strength. With the example just given, the
back analysis component is trivial, involving only the self-evident assumption that = . For other
situations this is not the case, and hence a more detailed description of the back analysis procedure is
required, as given in the following section.
Back analysis of a general infinite slope at limiting equilibrium.
Figure 7 illustrates such a slope, with a ground water level at a depth H
w
below the surface, and
seepage assumed to be parallel to the surface. Equipotential lines are thus perpendicular to the surface.
Static analysis of the equilibrium of the soil mass above a possible translational failure plane at depth
H does not produce a unique set of strength parameters, only a range of possible combinations of c
and . Also, for any given value of , the corresponding value of c is proportional to the depth
below the surface.
G
r
o
u
n
d

s
u
r
f
a
c
e
P
o
s
s
i
b
l
e

f
a
i
l
u
r
e

p
l
a
n
e
P
h
r
e
a
t
i
c

s
u
r
f
a
c
e

H
w
H
F
l
o
w

l
i
n
e
E
q
u
i
p
o
t
e
n
t
i
a
l

l
i
n
e
Figure 7. Assumed situation of an infinite slope at limiting equilibrium used in back analysis

The expression for the safety factor is:

tan
tan
1 1
sin cos
.

1
]
1

'

H
H
H
c
F S
w w
(8)
For the case of limiting equilibrium, (S.F. = 1), this becomes:

tan
tan
1 1 1
sin cos

1
]
1

'

H
H
H
c
w w
(9)
For the case of a slope in which no water table is present, the expression becomes:

tan
tan
1
sin cos

H
c
(10)
And for the case of a slope with a water table at the ground surface the expression becomes:

tan
tan
1 1
sin cos

1
]
1

w
H
c
(11)
where and
w
are the unit weights of the soil and water respectively
These equations are essentially the same as those given by Taylor (1948), in a slightly different form.
They show clearly that for a given value of the value of c needed to maintain equilibrium is
proportional to the depth H, as pointed out by Taylor (1948).
Wedge analysis
Figure 8 shows all the forces involved in the Coulomb wedge analysis, including a cohesive force C,
and a possible upthrust force U coming from seepage in the slope. By considering the equilibrium of
the wedge it can be shown that:

( )
( ) ( )
P W U C +

tan
sin
cos
cos
cos

(12)
H
P
U
R
W
l
C
Figure 8. Forces involved in the Coulomb wedge analysis to obtain the force P
a
.
It can also be shown fairly readily that the values of W, U, and C are given by the following
expressions.

( )

sin
cos cos
2
1
2
H W
(13)

( )

sin
cos
2
1
2
2 w
H U
(14)

( )
1
]
1

tan
tan
1
sin
sin cos
2
1
2
2
H C
(15)
for the dry slope

( )
1
]
1

'

tan
tan
1 1
sin
sin cos
2
1
2
2 w
H C
(16)
for the phreatic surface at ground level.
In deriving the value of U it is assumed that the making of the cut does not affect the seepage
condition, ie seepage continues toward the cut with seepage lines still parallel to the ground surface.
This is a conservative assumption, as in practice some drawdown of the phreatic surface is likely to
occur, at least near the face of the cut.
In each of the above expressions the term H
2
appears, so that it is easy to directly calculate the
coefficient K
a
rather than the force P
a
. The cohesive force C is expressed in terms of , and its value
is thus dependent on the value chosen for . There are an infinite number of combinations of c and
, as well as groundwater conditions; hence some restrictions need to be placed on the cases to be
considered in order to obtain solutions. Three relatively straightforward cases involving simple
assumptions have been selected for consideration here, and are described in the following sections.
These are:
Case (b): Cohesionless material with the phreatic surface at ground level.
Case (c): Material with some cohesion, no seepage.
Case (d): Material with some cohesion, phreatic surface at ground surface.
These will be considered in turn.
Cohesionless material with the phreatic surface at ground level - Case (b)
In this case, with c = zero, the value is related to the slope angle as follows:

tan 1 tan

,
_

w
(17)

C a s e ( b )
C a s e s ( c ) & ( d )
Figure 9. Determination of K
a
by trial wedges for the following cases:
(b) c = 0, phreatic seepage at ground surface.
(c) and (d), tan = 0.7 tan, with and without seepage.
We can then use the expressions above for W and U and obtain an expression for K in terms of the
wedge angle . The author has not found it possible to obtain an analytical expression for the
maximum value of K (= K
a
), as was the case with the dry granular material, and the Coulomb graphical
procedure has been used to obtain a solution. The results so obtained are shown in Figure 9. The K
a
values for the limiting wedge (at =) are indeterminate analytically because the component terms
become infinite. The value has therefore been determined by extrapolating straight lines through the
values from a series of trial wedges to intercept the x - axis; the value of K
a
is then taken as the value at
this axis. The graph of K
a
versus slope angle is shown in Figure 10, together with the graphs for other
cases. The values are considerably higher than those for the cohesionless slope with no seepage.
Slope with some cohesion, and no seepage - Case (c).
As mentioned above an assumption needs to be made about the relative magnitudes of c and . For
simplicity, an arbitrary assumption will be made here that the value of is somewhat less than the
slope angle, and related to it by the following relationship:
tan = 0.7 tan
The cohesion component c then takes on whatever value is needed to maintain stability, in accordance
with equation (10) derived above. The wedge analysis results in graphs similar to those obtained
earlier, they are shown in Figure 9. The curve of K
a
versus slope angle is shown alongside the other
curves in Figure 10.

0 2 0 4 0 6 0 8 0
1 . 0
0 . 8
0 . 6
0 . 4
0 . 2
S l o p e a n g l e
A
c
t
i
v
e

p
r
e
s
s
u
r
e

c
o
e
f
f
i
c
i
e
n
t

K
a
C a s e ( b ) c = o ,
p h r e a t i c s u r f a c e
a t g r o u n d s u r f a c e .
/
C a s e ( a )
c = o , n o s e e p a g e
/
C a s e s ( c ) a n d ( d ) :
t a n = 0 . 7 t a n , w i t h
o r w i t h o u t s e e p a g e .

/
Figure 10. Values of K
a
versus slope angle for all cases
Slope with some cohesion and the phreatic surface at the ground surface - Case (d).
The same assumption relating to is adopted as in the previous case, and the cohesion intercept
c takes on the value given by equation (11). Following through the analysis in this case produces the
somewhat surprising result that the K
a
values are the same as for the previous case. This may appear
anomalous, in seeming to suggest that the presence of seepage does not influence the active earth
pressure. This is not the case, because the soil strength is not the same in the two cases. The starting
point is the assumption that the slopes are at limiting equilibrium. If no seepage is present then a
particular value of c is needed to maintain equilibrium; if seepage is present then a different and
substantially higher value of c will be needed. The algebraic manipulation leading to these identical
expressions for K
a
is given in full by Wesley and Lee (1991). The wedge analysis results and the
graphs of K
a
versus slope angle given in Figs. 9 and 10 respectively are therefore identical to those for
Case (c).

DISCUSSION
Figure 10, which gives the relationship between K
a
and the slope angle for the several cases
covered in this study, appears somewhat surprising at first sight as the value of K
a
decreases as the
slope angle increases. It is often intuitively assumed that the steeper the slope behind a retaining wall,
the greater will be the force acting on the wall. Similarly the steeper the slope in which a cut is to be
made then the greater will be the force needed to retain it. This is however only a logical assumption if
the material is the same in each situation. It is not a logical assumption in relation to slopes in general
consisting of natural soils. Generally the reason some slopes in natural soils are steeper than others is
because the material they consist of is stronger. Slopes in clay in the United Kingdom tend to be rather
flat, while those in volcanic ash soil in Indonesia and New Zealand (with which the author is familiar)
are generally very steep, reflecting in each case the relative strength of the soils. If then we are
considering the relative magnitude of forces needed to retain cuts in London clay and volcanic ash, for
example, there is no a priori reason to assume that a higher force will be needed for the volcanic ash
soil.
The results summarised in Figure 10 are therefore neither surprising nor illogical. In fact, they are
the opposite; simple logic dictates that they must have the form they have. If the slope being retained is
flat and is at limiting equilibrium then clearly the material has the properties of a liquid, and the
horizontal stress will equal the vertical stress (ie K
a
= 1). On the other hand, if the slope is stable at 90
o
,
then no force is required to retain it. Hence the K
a
value must start at unity for a level slope and
decrease to zero for a vertical slope.
The curves in Figure 10 are from four specific cases. Cases (c) and (d) involve the arbitrary
assumption that tan = 0.7 tan. Various other assumptions could be adopted, such as for example
that the value of is constant, and c takes up the value necessary to maintain stability in
accordance with equations (10) and (11). The results obtained with this assumption are not greatly
different from those obtained for cases (c) and (d). It appears that whatever assumption is adopted
regarding the relative magnitudes of c and , the curves obtained will be similar provided the
assumption is made that the slope is at limiting equilibrium.
There are a number of idealising assumptions involved in the above analysis, which may not apply
in practice. These are:
Firstly, that the slope is at limiting equilibrium. If this is not the case then the soil strength will be
higher than the back analysis produces, and the K
a
values will be less.
Secondly, that the slope is infinite. If this is not the case, then both the back analysis and the
wedge analysis would be affected, presumably by comparable amounts and the net result not
much different to that from the infinite slope assumption.
Thirdly, that the seepage pattern remains the same after the cut is made. In reality, there will
probably be drawdown to some extent near the face of the cut. This will have the effect of
lowering the force level required to retain the slope and hence the K
a
values in Fig. 10 for the
cases involving seepage will be conservative.
Fourthly, the critical failure surface is planar. Non-planar failure surfaces would result if the
basic assumptions were altered and this would influence the values of K
a
somewhat; such
analysis is outside the scope of this paper.
Finally, no frictional forces between soil and retaining wall have been included in the analysis,
although it would not be difficult to repeat the analysis taking them into account. In many cases
(as explained in the introduction), cut slopes would be retained using anchor systems without a
rigid facing on the slope, and in this case the issue of wall friction would not arise.
CONCLUSION
Coulomb wedge analysis has been used to estimate the force required to retain cuts made in steep
slopes. Critical to the method is the starting assumption that the slope is at limiting equilibrium. The
analysis shows that the force needed to retain the cuts becomes less as the slope inclination increases a
magnitudes of c and , and the seepage condition in the slope. These lead to somewhat different
values of the coefficient K
a
, but all show the same trend of decreasing values with increase in slope
inclination.
REFERENCES
Coulomb, C.A. 1776. Essai sur une Application des Regles des Maximis et Minimis a quelques
Problemes de Statique Relatifs a l'Achitecture" (An attempt to apply the rules of maxima and
minima to several problems of stability related to architecture). Mem. Acad. Roy. Des Sciences,
Paris, 7, pp. 343-382.
Jumikis, A.R, 1962. Soil Mechanics. Van Nostrad Company, Princeton, pp 570-585.
Taylor, D.W. 1948. Fundamentals of Soil Mechanics. John Wiley and Sons, New York, pp 429 - 431.
Wesley, L.D and Lee Wai Hing (1991) Retention forces for cuts in slopes at limiting equilibrium.
Proceedings 10
th
Regional Conference for Africa on Soil Mechanics and Foundation Engineering
and the Third International Conference on Tropical and Residual Soils. Maseru Sept. 1991,
Balkema.