Self-organization and run-out behaviour of geophysical mass flows

Lead Research Organisation: University of Manchester
Department Name: Mathematics


It is vitally important to anticipate the run-out behaviour of geophysical mass flows and thus anticipate their impact area and peak destructive power, to develop effective strategies to improve the safety of "at risk" populations throughout the world. Geophysical mass flows encompass a wide range of natural hazards including snow avalanches, debris-flows, pyroclastic flows and lahars. They are all examples of either wet or dry granular flows in which "large" particles segregate towards the surface, where the velocity is greatest, and are preferentially transported towards flow fronts. Here they may be over-run, rise up by segregation, and be recirculated to produce bouldery flow fronts. These tend to be more resistive to motion than the finer grained interior, either because the grains are rougher or because in debris- and pyroclastic flows they dissipate the internal pore pressures that confer mobility. These segregation-mobility feedback effects can lead to the development of damaging high-mass-concentration surge fronts and can cause spreading flows to spontaneously develop lobes and leveed channels that transfer the mass readily for long distances (run-out). Such self-organization has important implications for hazard assessment and risk mitigation, because large surges can be highly destructive and the channelizing effect of levees can significantly alter an impact area. In our previous research we developed a depth-averaged theory for segregation that allowed segregation-mobility feedback effects to be incorporated easily into existing geophysical mass flows models. Numerical simulations showed that these captured the morphology of leveed fingers, as well as complex nonlinear coarsening, splitting and merging behaviour, but there was also an unexpected problem indicating that some important physics, related to dissipation, is missing in the model. We aim to identify the physical dissipation mechanisms involved. Small-scale analogue experiments and large-scale flume tests with our United States Geological Survey (USGS) partners will be used to study key flows that yield important insights into the nature of the dissipation, e.g. (i) the size of large particle recirculation cells (ii) the evolution of bouldery flow fronts (iii) the inception and coarsening dynamics of roll-waves and (iv) the velocity profile between levee walls. We will also go to the Pumice Plain of Mount St Helens, which is a virtually unique natural laboratory rich with information on the processes and conditions that led to both strongly leveed flows as well as spreading flows. These deposits have now been cross-cut by streams, which will allow detailed transects to be examined and sampled to establish the size and density of pumice clasts that were deposited by the various phases of June, July and August 1980 eruptions. Our multi-fronted approach of theory, computation, large- and small-scale experiments and field work is extremely powerful and will shed critical light on the controlling physical conditions and processes, and lead to major advances in our understanding of these complex nonlinear flows.

Planned Impact

Beneficiaries of the proposed research will be those communities and infrastructures located in at-risk regions of mountains and active volcanoes, particularly those prone to intense rainfall and/or seismicity. The research will improve mitigation of risk from rockfalls, snow and ice avalanches, debris flows / lahars and small-volume lava-dome and fountain-collapse pyroclastic density currents.

By improving the anticipation of the reach of these geophysical mass flows, and of the physical impacts and associated damages, mitigation strategies will be improved and loss of life and property significantly reduced, if not locally eliminated. Planners and engineers will be better informed for construction of barriers, diverters and conduits to 'manage' flows safely, while planners and architects will better understand potentially safer sites and structures for habitation and infrastructure.

National, regional and local organizations charged with hazards assessments will benefit from clear explanation of physical effects of phenomena on the one hand, and of the inference of past hazardous phenomena from their remaining deposits on the other hand. These explanations will be in the style of one or more user-friendly manual(s) that will have translations in languages appropriate to high-risk regions. With the USGS VDAP, we will enhance the Risk Mitigation videos that inform vulnerable lay public of hazards and their avoidance in dangerous areas.


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Baker J (2016) Segregation-induced finger formation in granular free-surface flows in Journal of Fluid Mechanics

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Barker T (2017) Well-posed continuum equations for granular flow with compressibility and ()-rheology. in Proceedings. Mathematical, physical, and engineering sciences

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Barker T (2015) Well-posed and ill-posed behaviour of the -rheology for granular flow in Journal of Fluid Mechanics

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Edwards A (2014) Erosion-deposition waves in shallow granular free-surface flows in Journal of Fluid Mechanics

Description The theory of segregation has been generalized to particle-density as well as particle-size segregation. We have also pioneered non-destructive visualization of the evolving particle-size distribution, which has led to key insights about the asymmetry of the segregation flux function. This was featured on the front cover of Physical Review Letters.

The feedback that segregation has on the bulk flow (which leads to flow fingering) has also led to exciting new insights into the rheology of granular flows. In particular, we have derived a new depth-averaged mu(I)-rheology for the granular avalanches, which represents a major scientific breakthrough in that it can accurately describe the dispersion relation for surface roll-wave instabilities and is a key ingredient in being able to accurately model erosion-deposition processes in geophysical flows.
Exploitation Route The insights of both the segregation and rheology of granular flows have wide ranging importance in many fields. In particular there is an interesting crossover to industrial granular flows, where the same physics is active. Since 40% of all materials that are processes by industry are in granular form, there is a huge area to be explored here.
Sectors Agriculture, Food and Drink,Chemicals,Construction,Environment,Healthcare,Manufacturing, including Industrial Biotechology,Pharmaceuticals and Medical Biotechnology

Description Particle segregation is of enormous importance for industry and the research has directly led to an EPSRC Impact Acceleration Award (IAA) and subsequently a EPSRC Established Career Fellowship on taking what we have learnt in the geophysical context and applying it to basic unit operations in industry.
First Year Of Impact 2014
Sector Chemicals,Construction,Manufacturing, including Industrial Biotechology,Pharmaceuticals and Medical Biotechnology
Impact Types Economic