Articles | Volume 5, issue 3
Research article
17 Aug 2017
Research article |  | 17 Aug 2017

Tree-root control of shallow landslides

Denis Cohen and Massimiliano Schwarz

Abstract. Tree roots have long been recognized to increase slope stability by reinforcing the strength of soils. Slope stability models usually include the effects of roots by adding an apparent cohesion to the soil to simulate root strength. No model includes the combined effects of root distribution heterogeneity, stress-strain behavior of root reinforcement, or root strength in compression. Recent field observations, however, indicate that shallow landslide triggering mechanisms are characterized by differential deformation that indicates localized activation of zones in tension, compression, and shear in the soil. Here we describe a new model for slope stability that specifically considers these effects. The model is a strain-step discrete element model that reproduces the self-organized redistribution of forces on a slope during rainfall-triggered shallow landslides. We use a conceptual sigmoidal-shaped hillslope with a clearing in its center to explore the effects of tree size, spacing, weak zones, maximum root-size diameter, and different root strength configurations. Simulation results indicate that tree roots can stabilize slopes that would otherwise fail without them and, in general, higher root density with higher root reinforcement results in a more stable slope. The variation in root stiffness with diameter can, in some cases, invert this relationship. Root tension provides more resistance to failure than root compression but roots with both tension and compression offer the best resistance to failure. Lateral (slope-parallel) tension can be important in cases when the magnitude of this force is comparable to the slope-perpendicular tensile force. In this case, lateral forces can bring to failure tree-covered areas with high root reinforcement. Slope failure occurs when downslope soil compression reaches the soil maximum strength. When this occurs depends on the amount of root tension upslope in both the slope-perpendicular and slope-parallel directions. Roots in tension can prevent failure by reducing soil compressive forces downslope. When root reinforcement is limited, a crack parallel to the slope forms near the top of the hillslope. Simulations with roots that fail across this crack always resulted in a landslide. Slopes that did not form a crack could either fail or remain stable, depending on root reinforcement. Tree spacing is important for the location of weak zones but tree location on the slope (with respect to where a crack opens) is as important. Finally, for the specific cases tested here, intermediate-sized roots (5 to 20 mm in diameter) appear to contribute most to root reinforcement. Our results show more complex behaviors than can be obtained with the traditional slope-uniform, apparent-cohesion approach. A full understanding of the mechanisms of shallow landslide triggering requires a complete re-evaluation of this traditional approach that cannot predict where and how forces are mobilized and distributed in roots and soils, and how these control shallow landslides shape, size, location, and timing.

Short summary
Tree roots reinforce soils on slopes. A new slope stability model is presented that computes root reinforcement including the effects of root heterogeneities and dependence of root strength on tensile and compressive strain. Our results show that roots stabilize slopes that would otherwise fail under a rainfall event. Tension in roots is more effective than compression. Redistribution of forces in roots across the hillslope plays a key role in the stability of the slope during rainfall events.