By Jill Carlson
On March 23, 2003, a large avalanche occurred about one mile west of the Town of Silver Plume. The avalanche brought trees, rock, soil and snow to the valley floor, knocked down overhead utility lines, blocked the I-70 frontage road, damaged the town’s water treatment plant (WTP), and dammed Clear Creek. The dam was breached using explosives before the plant’s electric pump motors were flooded. With damage to the WTP’s chlorine contact tank and building, Silver Plume residents had to boil their tap water for over a month.
The avalanche occurred three days after near-record snowfall. It was triggered by additional snow loading in the starting zone caused by a change in wind direction, and began in a known avalanche path above timberline on Pendleton Mountain. Its unusually large volume and velocity caused it to unexpectedly reach the valley floor, along a path not previously identified as an avalanche chute. Rick Gaubatz, the Town’s water commissioner, counted 110 rings in a spruce tree that was found in the avalanche debris at the damaged WTP, indicating that an avalanche of similar magnitude had not occurred in the immediate area in at least 110 years.
The earth’s surface can subside because of underground mining when rock is removed at depth. Although subsidence can occur due to hard rock mining, this article only considers the effects of coal mining.
When coal is extracted underground, gravity and the weight of the overlying rock may cause the layers of rock to shift and sink downward into the void left by the removal of the coal. Ultimately, this process can affect the surface, causing the ground to sag and crack and holes to form. Merely an inch of differential subsidence beneath a residential structure can cause several thousand dollars worth of damage.
Subsidence can happen suddenly and without warning. Detailed investigations of an undermined area are needed before development occurs to resolve the magnitude of the subsidence hazard and to determine if safe construction is possible. While investigations after development can determine the extent of undermining and potential subsidence, often, existing buildings cannot be protected against subsidence hazards. The cost of remedial measures is often extremely high.
The CGS’s Matt Morgan and Jon White were two of the co-authors on one of the top-ten Geological Society of America (GSA) 2016 book chapters and journal articles, this out of 600 papers. The article describes a comprehensive forensic analysis of the massive West Salt Creek rock avalanche that occurred in late May 2014 in western Colorado (USA). The analysis relied on large-scale (1:1000) structural mapping accomplished via high-resolution unmanned aircraft system imagery along with seismic data generated by more than twenty stations within approximately 500 miles (800 km) of the event. The avalanche was the largest mass-movement slope failure in the historical record of Colorado, and it killed three people, narrowly avoiding destroying a gas wellhead.
On solid ground — that’s how many of us think of good old, stable earth. So it’s disconcerting when the ground moves out from under us in any way.
Because of our environment, history, and geology, Colorado has conditions where ground movements can costs millions of dollars in annual property damage from repair and remediation, litigation, required investigations, and mitigation. There has been recent attention to swelling clay soils and heaving claystone bedrock, and the media has helped publicize these problems, which are predominant along the Front Range. But that’s only half the story. Geologic hazards in Colorado also include ground that sinks. Ground subsidence and soil settlement pose significant hazards in Colorado in many areas throughout the state. A variety of causes, some human-made and others inherent to the geology and geomorphology of Colorado, cause these sinking problems.
At the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th Century, some of the first settlers of the plateau region of western Colorado along the Colorado River, and the Uncompahgre and Paonia river basins, looked to fruit crops for their livelihood. The semi-arid but moderate climate was well suited for fruit orchards once irrigation canal systems could be constructed.
But serious problems occurred when certain lands were first broken out for agriculture and wetted by irrigation. They sank, so much in places (up to four feet!) that irrigation-canal flow directions were reversed, ponding occurred, and whole orchards, newly planted with fruit trees imported by rail and wagon at considerable expense, were lost. While not understood, fruit growers and agriculturists began to recognize the hazards of sinking ground. Horticulturists with the Colorado Agricultural College and Experimental Station (the predecessor of Colorado State University) made one of the first references to collapsible soil in their 1910 publication, Fruit-Growing in Arid Regions: An Account of Approved Fruit-Growing Practices in the Inter-Mountain Country of Western United States (pdf download). They warned about sinking ground and in their chapter, Preparation of Land for Planting, made one of the first recommendations for mitigation of the hazard. They stated that when breaking out new land for fruit orchards, the fields should be flood irrigated for a suitable time to induce soil collapse, before final grading of the orchard field, irrigation channels excavation, and planting the fruit tree seedlings.
Many areas of Colorado are underlain by bedrock that is composed of evaporite minerals. Indicative of the word evaporite, these minerals were deposited during the cyclic evaporation of shallow seas that existed in central Colorado millions of years ago. As the water continued to evaporate, the remaining solution became hyperconcentrated with salts: minerals such as gypsum, anhydrite, and halite (rock salt). These minerals precipitate out of solution and accumulate in shallow nearshore basins on the bottom of the sea floor. Depending on the paleoevironment, thinly interbedded fine sandstone, mudstone, and black shales can also occur in the evaporite. Mostly Late Paleozoic and Mesozoic rock formations contain evaporite beds in Colorado. Some are thin and discontinuous — only minor beds within a rock formation. Others are massive, with evaporitic minerals many hundreds of feet thick.
Millions of years of burial, plastic deformation, mountain building, and erosion have forced the evaporite beds to the shallow subsurface and/or ground surface today. Evaporite minerals in Colorado are a valuable mining resource. Historic mining occurred throughout the state where thin gypsum beds were exposed. Active mining continues in the massive deposits near the town of Gypsum.
Subsidence experts visiting the Netherlands. Deltares hosted 15 international subsidence experts to discuss subsidence problems worldwide at the annual meeting of UNESCO Land Subsidence working group. Gilles Erkens, subsidence expert Deltares showed the impact of subsidence in the Netherlands during a field trip.
Land subsidence is causing more and more damage every year. It scarcely registers on the radar of many countries. Even so, the impact on coastal cities and peat areas is increasingly apparent. Levels of flood damage are rising and the risk of casualties is following. Land subsidence can also lead to major economic losses such as structural damage and high maintenance costs for roads, railways, dikes, pipelines and buildings. The total bill worldwide mounts up to many billions of dollars annually. It can only rise further in the future with population growth and the intensification of economic activities in delta areas.