When do rock glacier fronts fail? Insights from two case studies in South Tyrol (Italian Alps)

Kofler, Christian, Mair, Volkmar, Gruber, Stephan, Todisco, Maria C., Nettleton, Ian, Steger, Stefan, Zebisch, Marc, Schneiderbauer, Stefan and Comiti, Francesco, (2021). When do rock glacier fronts fail? Insights from two case studies in South Tyrol (Italian Alps). Earth Surface Processes and Landforms, 1-17

The fronts of two rock glaciers located in South Tyrol (Italian Alps) failed on 13 August 2014, initiating debris flows in their downslope channels. A multimethod approach including climate, meteorological, and ground temperature data analysis, aerial image correlation, as well as geotechnical testing and modeling, led to the reconstruction of the two events. An integrated investigation of static predisposing factors, slowly changing preparatory factors, and potential triggering events shed light on the most likely reasons for such failures. Our results suggest that the occurrence of front destabilization at the two rock glaciers can only partly be explained by the occurrence of heavy rainfall events. Indeed, antecedent hydrological and thermal ground conditions were characterized by a saturated active layer favored by a snow-rich winter and extensive precipitation in late spring and summer. Also, the rising trend of air temperature during spring and summer months since 1950s might explain the concurrent marked displacement of the two rock glaciers. Indeed, geotechnical investigations have provided strong indications that one of the investigated rock glacier fronts was at a marginally stable state prior to 2014. As rainfall events more intense than the one that occurred in August 2014 were previously recorded in the same area without resulting failures at the studied rock glaciers, we propose that both predisposing and preparatory destabilizing factors have played a key role in the 2014 rock glacier front failures.

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