Slope stability refers to the condition of inclined soil or rock slopes to withstand or undergo movement. The stability condition of slopes is a subject of study and research in soil mechanics, geotechnical engineering and engineering geology. Slope stability analyses include static and dynamic, analytical or empirical methods to evaluate the stability of earth and rock-fill dams, embankments, excavated slopes, and natural slopes in soil and rock. The analyses are generally aimed at understanding the causes of an occurred slope failure, or the factors that can potentially trigger a slope movement, resulting in a landslide, as well as at preventing the initiation of such movement, slowing it down or arresting it through mitigation countermeasures.
The stability of a slope is essentially controlled by the ratio between the available shear strength and the acting shear stress, which can be expressed in terms of a safety factor if these quantities are integrated over a potential (or actual) sliding surface. A slope can be globally stable if the safety factor, computed along any potential sliding surface running from the top of the slope to its toe, is always larger than 1. The smallest value of the safety factor will be taken as representing the global stability condition of the slope. Similarly, a slope can be locally stable if a safety factor larger than 1 is computed along any potential sliding surface running through a limited portion of the slope (for instance only within its toe). Values of the global or local safety factors close to 1 (typically comprised between 1 and 1.3, depending on regulations) indicate marginally stable slopes that require attention, monitoring and/or an engineering intervention (slope stabilization) to increase the safety factor and reduce the probability of a slope movement.
A previously stable slope can be affected by a number of predisposing factors or processes that make the safety factor decrease - either by increasing the shear stress or by decreasing the shear strength - and can ultimately result in slope failure. Factors that can trigger slope failure include hydrologic events (such as intense or prolonged rainfall, rapid snowmelt, progressive soil saturation, increase of water pressure within the slope), earthquakes (including aftershocks), internal erosion (piping), surface or toe erosion, artificial slope loading (for instance due to the construction of a building), slope cutting (for instance to make space for roadways, railways or buildings), or slope flooding (for instance by filling an artificial lake after damming a river).
As seen in Figure 1, earthen slopes can develop a cut-spherical weakness area. The probability of this happening can be calculated in advance using a simple 2-D circular analysis package. A primary difficulty with analysis is locating the most-probable slip plane for any given situation. Many landslides have only been analyzed after the fact. More recently slope stability radar technology has been employed, particularly in the mining industry, to gather real time data and assist in determining the likelihood of slope failure.
Real life failures in naturally deposited mixed soils are not necessarily circular, but prior to computers, it was far easier to analyse such a simplified geometry. Nevertheless, failures in 'pure' clay can be quite close to circular. Such slips often occur after a period of heavy rain, when the pore water pressure at the slip surface increases, reducing the effective normal stress and thus diminishing the restraining friction along the slip line. This is combined with increased soil weight due to the added groundwater. A 'shrinkage' crack (formed during prior dry weather) at the top of the slip may also fill with rain water, pushing the slip forward. At the other extreme, slab-shaped slips on hillsides can remove a layer of soil from the top of the underlying bedrock. Again, this is usually initiated by heavy rain, sometimes combined with increased loading from new buildings or removal of support at the toe (resulting from road widening or other construction work). Stability can thus be significantly improved by installing drainage paths to reduce the destabilising forces. Once the slip has occurred, however, a weakness along the slip circle remains, which may then recur at the next monsoon.
Slope stability issues can be seen with almost any walk down a ravine in an urban setting. An example is shown in Figure 3, where a river is eroding the toe of a slope, and there is a swimming pool near the top of the slope. If the toe is eroded too far, or the swimming pool begins to leak, the forces driving a slope failure will exceed those resisting failure, and a landslide will develop, possibly quite suddenly.
If the forces available to resist movement are greater than the forces driving movement, the slope is considered stable. A factor of safety is calculated by dividing the forces resisting movement by the forces driving movement. In earthquake-prone areas, the analysis is typically run for static conditions and pseudo-static conditions, where the seismic forces from an earthquake are assumed to add static loads to the analysis.
Stability of slopes can be improved by:
- Flattening of slope results in reduction in weight which makes the slope more stable
- Soil stabilization
- Providing lateral supports by piles or retaining walls
- Grouting or cement injections into special places
- Consolidation by surcharging or electro osmosis increases the stability of slope.
- "Slope Stability Calculator". Retrieved 2006-12-14.
- Chugh, Ashok K. (2002). "A method for locating critical slip surfaces in slope stability analysis: Discussion". Canadian Geotechnical Journal. 39 (3): 765–770. doi:10.1139/t02-042.