Articles | Volume 5, issue 4
Research article
 | Highlight paper
16 Oct 2017
Research article | Highlight paper |  | 16 Oct 2017

Seismic monitoring of small alpine rockfalls – validity, precision and limitations

Michael Dietze, Solmaz Mohadjer, Jens M. Turowski, Todd A. Ehlers, and Niels Hovius

Abstract. Rockfall in deglaciated mountain valleys is perhaps the most important post-glacial geomorphic process for determining the rates and patterns of valley wall erosion. Furthermore, rockfall poses a significant hazard to inhabitants and motivates monitoring efforts in populated areas. Traditional rockfall detection methods, such as aerial photography and terrestrial laser scanning (TLS) data evaluation, provide constraints on the location and released volume of rock but have limitations due to significant time lags or integration times between surveys, and deliver limited information on rockfall triggering mechanisms and the dynamics of individual events. Environmental seismology, the study of seismic signals emitted by processes at the Earth's surface, provides a complementary solution to these shortcomings. However, this approach is predominantly limited by the strength of the signals emitted by a source and their transformation and attenuation towards receivers. To test the ability of seismic methods to identify and locate small rockfalls, and to characterise their dynamics, we surveyed a 2.16 km2 large, near-vertical cliff section of the Lauterbrunnen Valley in the Swiss Alps with a TLS device and six broadband seismometers. During 37 days in autumn 2014, 10 TLS-detected rockfalls with volumes ranging from 0.053 ± 0.004 to 2.338 ± 0.085 m3 were independently detected and located by the seismic approach, with a deviation of 81−29+59 m (about 7 % of the average inter-station distance of the seismometer network). Further potential rockfalls were detected outside the TLS-surveyed cliff area. The onset of individual events can be determined within a few milliseconds, and their dynamics can be resolved into distinct phases, such as detachment, free fall, intermittent impact, fragmentation, arrival at the talus slope and subsequent slope activity. The small rockfall volumes in this area require significant supervision during data processing: 2175 initially picked potential events reduced to 511 potential events after applying automatic rejection criteria. The 511 events needed to be inspected manually to reveal 19 short earthquakes and 37 potential rockfalls, including the 10 TLS-detected events. Rockfall volume does not show a relationship with released seismic energy or peak amplitude at this spatial scale due to the dominance of other, process-inherent factors, such as fall height, degree of fragmentation, and subsequent talus slope activity. The combination of TLS and environmental seismology provides, despite the significant amount of manual data processing, a detailed validation of seismic detection of small volume rockfalls, and revealed unprecedented temporal, spatial and geometric details about rockfalls in steep mountainous terrain.

Short summary
We use a seismometer network to detect and locate rockfalls, a key process shaping steep mountain landscapes. When tested against laser scan surveys, all seismically detected events could be located with an average deviation of 81 m. Seismic monitoring provides insight to the dynamics of individual rockfalls, which can be as small as 0.0053 m3. Thus, seismic methods provide unprecedented temporal, spatial and kinematic details about this important process.