Effects of coarse grain size distribution and fine particle content on pore fluid pressure and shear behavior in experimental debris flows

Roland Kaitna, Marisa C. Palucis, Bereket Yohannes, Kimberly M Hill, William E. Dietrich

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

92 Scopus citations


Debris flows are typically a saturated mixture of poorly sorted particles and interstitial fluid, whose density and flow properties depend strongly on the presence of suspended fine sediment. Recent research suggests that grain size distribution (GSD) influences excess pore pressures (i.e., pressure in excess of predicted hydrostatic pressure), which in turn plays a governing role in debris flow behaviors. We report a series of controlled laboratory experiments in a 4 m diameter vertically rotating drum where the coarse particle size distribution and the content of fine particles were varied independently. We measured basal pore fluid pressures, pore fluid pressure profiles (using novel sensor probes), velocity profiles, and longitudinal profiles of the flow height. Excess pore fluid pressure was significant for mixtures with high fines fraction. Such flows exhibited lower values for their bulk flow resistance (as measured by surface slope of the flow), had damped fluctuations of normalized fluid pressure and normal stress, and had velocity profiles where the shear was concentrated at the base of the flow. These effects were most pronounced in flows with a wide coarse GSD distribution. Sustained excess fluid pressure occurred during flow and after cessation of motion. Various mechanisms may cause dilation and contraction of the flows, and we propose that the sustained excess fluid pressures during flow and once the flow has stopped may arise from hindered particle settling and yield strength of the fluid, resulting in transfer of particle weight to the fluid. Thus, debris flow behavior may be strongly influenced by sustained excess fluid pressures controlled by particle settling rates.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)415-441
Number of pages27
JournalJournal of Geophysical Research: Earth Surface
Issue number2
StatePublished - Feb 2016

Bibliographical note

Funding Information:
This work was supported by the STC program of the National Science Foundation via the National Center for Earth-Surface Dynamics under the agreement EAR-0120914 the National Science Foundation grant CBET-0932735, and the Austrian Science Fund (J2837-N10). Marisa Palucis was partially supported by the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, California Institute of Technology, under a contract with NASA under the Mars Program Office. The experimental data may be obtained from R.K. (roland.kaitna@boku.ac.at).


  • debris flow
  • experiments
  • flow behavior
  • pore fluid pressure
  • rotating drum


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