The anatomy of a small landslip

At the centre of the Peak District National Park in England is a small mountain called Mam Tor, at the summit of which is a large Iron Age fort complete with defensive ramparts and ditches. Complete, that is, except for its southern parts, which are chopped through by a large arcuate cliff. Below that is hummocky ground typical of landslips, but such disturbed ground is common over large tracts in the Peak District that lie below hills, especially those underlain by Lower Namurian shales of the region. Mam Tor is the only one of these that has an active landslip. Since my early childhood the local authority has tried to keep trafficable a once major road linking the cities of Sheffield and Manchester, but to no avail; most winters it was buckled and cracked by continued motion. The road was abandoned in 1979 and is now a magnificent laboratory for judging the kind of motion involved in the Mam Tor slip. The Iron Age people had much the same problem, as the slip began around 1500 BC long before the fort was built. Clearly, they were not engineering geologists, though the unclimbable scar was maybe a defensive bonus, provided the old, the bewildered and the very young were kept well away from it, as they are today.

Records of the movement have been kept since the road was constructed in 1820, and one milestone has moved 50 m in 190 years at a constant annual rate, but just how it moves has only become clear since Manchester University geologists installed tilt and creep meters, and 50 survey stations in 2004-5. Their preliminary results are just in (Green, S. et al. 2010. The effects of groundwater level and vegetaion on creep of the Mam Tor landslip. Geology Today, v. 26, p. 134-139). The creep rate is clearly governed by groundwater level beneath the slip, and has risen as high as 19.5 mm per day. From the logarithmic plot between the two variables it is possible to estimate the creep rate with completely saturated ground, which would be an ominous 0.6 m per day. Thankfully, drainage through the slip is good, as beneath lie highly unstable mudstones; but things could change. The team has also monitored local rainfall, and precipitation underwent a marked increase from 2000 onward (1.64 m per year) compared with the average since 1930 of 1.3 m per year. Fortunately, spring and summer rains are quickly returned to the atmosphere by vigorous evapotranspiration by the lush grasses and ferns on the slipped mass. The greatest creep takes place in the winter when vegetation has died back.  Mam Tor is indeed highly instructive, but at present poses no great hazard, yet it might become less predictable should annual rainfall increase. It is unlikely to attain the awesome pace of that in Calabria, southern Itaaly on 15 February 2010 at Maierato near Vibo Valentia (view


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