Slope Instability

In the history of rock mechanics and rock engineering, more attention has been paid to slope instability considerations than any other topic, and this topic remains one of the most important today. One of our first considerations must be to identify the basic mechanisms of slope instability. Analysis may then proceed treating the unstable mass as a continuum or discontinuum.


Slope Instability
As a continuum, the failure path passes through the rock mass. As a discontinuum, the failure surface is dictated more directly by the presence of specific pre-existing discontinuities. It is also possible to have intermediate cases where the failure occurs partly along discontinuities and partly through bridges of intact rock. Although most soil slope instability is of the continuous nature, the majority of rock slope instability is caused by individual discontinuities. This is because the strength of the intact rock can be high, with the result that the pre-existing discontinuities are the weakest link.

Slope Instability Mechanisms
The following diagram illustrates what are traditionally regarded as the four basic instability mechanisms for rock slopes. The geometry of the slip in (a) is a function of the slope geometry and the strength of the slopeforming material, but those shown in (b-d) show how the boundaries of the instability are governed by discontinuities.

Curvilinear Slip (Rotational Slides)
The term ‘curvilinear slip’ is used to describe the group of instabilities where the slip surface is curved and usually terminates at a tension crack at the upper ground surface. The shape and location of the slip surface depends on the strength characteristics of the ground mass, which in turn depends on the structure of the assumed continuum.

Curvilinear Slip (Rotational Slides)

… development of curvilinear slips as a function of rock mass structure and characteristics.

Curvilinear Slip – Limit Equilibrium Analysis
In analysing the potential for slip, one has to consider: (a) the location of the slip surface; and (b) determination of the factor of safety for a given slip surface. In practice the factor of safety is determined for assumed slip surface locations. The technique used to analyze these failures is a limit equilibrium technique called the ‘method of slices’


Method of Slices
The method of slices involves the discretization of the slip surface into elements, each of which has normal and shear forces applied to it. Each element has three unknowns associated with it: the normal (N) and shear (S) forces, and the location of the line of action of the normal force relative to the element itself (n). For the case shown, there is a total of 12 unknown parameters but only three equations of static equilibrium available to solve this problem: ΣFx=0, ΣFy=0 and ΣM=0, where Fx and Fy are the force components in the x and y directions, and M are moments in the x-y plane. Thus to solve the problem, we have to make assumptions which reduce the number of unknowns. 7

Method of Slices
The reduction of the number of unknowns is usually done by sub-dividing the mass under consideration into ‘slices’, and analysing each slice on the basis that it is in limiting equilibrium, i.e. each N and S is linked through the strength criterion of the slip surface. Examination of a typical slice with the various forces applied to it, and equilibrium analysis leads to:

which enables S to be expressed in terms of the other slice parameters.


Method of Slices
The analysis of the factor of safety, F, of the entire mass then depend on whether the slip surface is generally non-circular, or specifically truly circular. non-circular:


Where H is the hydrostatic thrust from the tension crack. 9

Plane Sliding
Planar slides generally involve a major discontinuity of lengthy persistence. The case of planar sliding is unlike that of curvilinear slip, in that it is statistically determinate. As such, we can calculate the factor of safety directly, for kinematically feasible planes, by making suitable assumptions to render the problem twodimensional. 10

Plane Sliding – Kinematic Analysis
To consider the kinematic feasibility of plane instability, four necessary but simple criteria are introduced: (a) The dip of the slope must exceed the dip of the potential slide plane; (b) The potential slip plane must daylight on the slope plane; (c) The dip of the potential slip plane must be such that the strength of the plane is reached; (d) The dip direction of the sliding plane should lie approximately ±20° of the dip direction of the slope.
kinematicly feasible not kinematicly feasible


Plane Sliding – Kinematic Analysis

friction cone slope face daylight envelope

… kinematic analysis of planar stability using stereonet constructions.

Plane Sliding – Limit Equilibrium Analysis
The solution for plane sliding requires that the strikes of the failure plane and slope are parallel and that no end restraints are present. Furthermore, the solution incorporates the assumptions that the rock mass is impermeable, the sliding block is rigid, the strength of the slide plane is given by the Mohr-Coulomb criterion and that all forces pass through the centroid of the sliding block. 13

Plane Sliding – Limit Equilibrium Analysis
… calculation of factor of safety vs. different depths of water in the tension crack, indicating a possible significant effect of heavy and prolonged rainfall. … factor of safety vs. varying effective friction angles along the plane of sliding.


Wedge Sliding
Wedge sliding can be extended from plane sliding by considering sliding along two planes simultaneously.


Wedge Sliding – Kinematic Analysis
To consider the kinematic feasibility of wedge instability, we need to consider three criteria relating to the line of intersection: (a) The dip of the slope must exceed the dip of the line of intersection of the two wedge forming discontinuity planes; (b) The same line of intersection must daylight on the slope plane; (c) The dip of the line of intersection must be such that the strength of the two planes are reached.

Wedge Sliding – Kinematic Analysis

… kinematic analysis of wedge stability using stereonet constructions.

Wedge Sliding – Limit Equilibrium Analysis
Assuming that the direction of sliding is parallel to the line of intersection of the two sliding planes, forces parallel to this line and perpendicular to the sliding planes can be resolved in order to determine the factor of safety.

18 - Il numeratore della 2a eq. è N sulla linea di intersezione.

Wedge Sliding – Limit Equilibrium Analysis
Consolidating these formulae results in:

A direct insight into the fundamental mechanism of wedge instability is seen in the lefthand side of this equation which shows how the safety factor varies with the sharpness of the wedge (δ) and the verticality of the wedge (β).

Toppling Instability
To final fundamental mechanical mode of structurally controlled slope instability, involves toppling failures. Toppling generally occurs in two modes: direct toppling – occurs when the centre of gravity of a block lies outside the outline of the base of the block, with the result that a critical overturning moment develops. flexural toppling – occurs under certain circumstances when a layered rock mass outcrops at a rock slope, and the principal stress parallel to the slope face induces inter-layer slip which causes the intact rock to fracture and the resulting blocks to overturn. 20

Direct Toppling – Kinematic Analysis
The kinematic-based question in the case of direct toppling is whether a block resting on an inclined surface will be stable, or slide, or topple. The nature of direct toppling is determined from considerations of the block geometry and the angle of friction between the block and the surface on which it is resting.

The resulting four categories of equilibrium under these conditions are:


Direct Toppling – Kinematic Analysis

… kinematic analysis of direct toppling instability using stereonet constructions.
22; (90°-PSIp) è l'inclinazione del polo del piano

Direct Toppling – Limit Equilibrium Analysis

… limit equilibrium analysis of direct toppling instability using factor of safety calculations.

Flexural Toppling Instability
Remembering that the creation of a new excavation surface results in the principal stresses being parallel and perpendicular to the excavated face, the potential for inter-layer slip is then dependent on the geometry of the layers. An analysis of instability will include the given geometrical parameters as well as the angle of friction. In limit equilibrium, these parameters can be utilized to define a ‘geometrical factor of safety’:


Analytical Solutions – Limit Equilibrium
The most widely applied analytical technique used in slope stability analysis is that of limit equilibrium, whereby force or/and moment equilibrium conditions are examined on the basis of statics. These analyses require information about material strength, but not stressstrain behaviour. The typical output from a limit equilibrium analysis is the “Factor of Safety”: FS = resisting forces driving forces = shear strength of material shear stress required for equilibrium

… where FS > 1.0 represents a stable situation and FS < 1.0 denotes failure.


Limit Equilibrium – Factor of Safety
The factor of safety is an overall measure of the amount by which the strength of the soil would have to fall short of the values described by c and φ in order for the slope to fail. FS = resisting forces driving forces = shear strength of material shear stress required for equilibrium

FS =

c + σ tan φ τeq


Limit Equilibrium Analysis
The fundamental concepts of the limit equilibrium method for slope stability analysis are (Morgenstern, 1995):

… slip mechanism results in slope failure; … resisting forces required to equilibrate disturbing mechanisms are found from static solution ; … the shear resistance required for equilibrium is compared with available shear strength in terms of the Factor of Safety; … the mechanism corresponding to the lowest FS is found by iteration.


Limit Equilibrium – Circular Analysis
Circular failure surfaces are found to be the most critical in soil slopes consisting of homogenous materials. There are two analytical, statically determinate, methods commonly used to calculate the FS for these slopes: the circular arc (φ=0) and the friction circle method.

cu LR FS = Wx
… circular failure surface in φ = 0 soil defined by its undrained strength, cu.
28 - THETA in radianti

Limit Equilibrium – Method of Slices
The previous methods discussed do not depend on the distribution of the effective normal stresses along the failure surface. However, if the mobilized strength for a c-φ soil is to be calculated, this distribution must be accounted for.

… this condition is usually analyzed by dividing the failing slope mass into smaller slices and treating each individual slice as a unique sliding block.

Method of Slices

… forces acting on a typical slice.

Method of Slices - Equations & Unknowns

… for this system, there are (6n-2) unknowns but only 4 equations which can be written for the limit equilibrium condition – therefore the solution is statically indeterminate.


Method of Slices - Equations & Unknowns

… forces on a typical slice resolved into two known resultant forces and a moment, with the unknown force components shown separately (Bromhead, 1992).


Method of Slices - Assumptions

… however, a solution is possible providing the number of unknowns can be reduced by making some simplifying assumptions. It is these assumptions that generally differentiate the many methods of analysis available. 33

Limit Equilibrium – Conditions/Factors
Drained and Undrained:
… slope failures may occur under drained or undrained conditions depending on the soils that make up the slope and the external loading conditions.

Effective Stress and Total Stress:
… in effective stress analyses, the shear strength is related to the effective normal stress on the potential slip surface by means of effective shear stress parameters (cd,φ d). Pore pressures must be known and are part of the information required for analysis. … in total stress analyses, the shear strength is related to the total normal stress on the potential slip surface by means of total shear stress parameters (cu, φ u~0). Pore pressures need not be known and are not part of the information required for analysis. 34

Method of Slices - Computation

… example slope: sand embankment over clay foundation – such problems can be easily solved using spreadsheet calculations.

Method of Slices - Computation

… example computation for ordinary method of slices.

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