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Quantifying bedrock‐fracture patterns within the shallow subsurface: Implications for rock mass strength, bedrock landslides, and erodibility


The role of bedrock fractures and rock mass strength is often considered a primary influence on the efficiency of surface processes and the morphology of landscapes. Quantifying bedrock characteristics at hillslope scales, however, has proven difficult. Here, we present a new field-based method for quantifying the depth and apparent density of bedrock fractures within the shallow subsurface based on seismic refraction surveys. We examine variations in subsurface fracture patterns in both Fiordland and the Southern Alps of New Zealand to better constrain the influence of bedrock properties in governing rates and patterns of landslides, as well as the morphology of threshold landscapes. We argue that intense tectonic deformation produces uniform bedrock fracturing with depth, whereas geomorphic processes produce strong fracture gradients focused within the shallow subsurface. Additionally, we argue that hillslope strength and stability are functions of both the intact rock strength and the density of bedrock fractures, such that for a given intact rock strength, a threshold fracture-density exists that delineates between stable and unstable rock masses. In the Southern Alps, tectonic forces have pervasively fractured intrinsically weak rock to the verge of instability, such that the entire rock mass is susceptible to failure and landslides can potentially extend to great depths. Conversely, in Fiordland, tectonic fracturing of the strong intact rock has produced fracture densities less than the regional stability threshold. Therefore, bedrock failure in Fiordland generally occurs only after geomorphic fracturing has further reduced the rock mass strength. This dependence on geomorphic fracturing limits the depths of bedrock landslides to within this geomorphically weakened zone. Copyright 2011 by the American Geophysical Union.

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