Probabilistic modelling of unsaturated slope stability accounting for heterogeneity

  • Patrick Arnold

Student thesis: Phd


The performance and safety assessment of geo-structures is strongly affected by uncertainty; that is, both due a subjective lack of knowledge as well as objectively present and irreducible unknowns. Due to uncertainty in the non-linear variation of the matric suction induced effective stress as a function of the transient soil-atmosphere boundary conditions, the unsaturated state of the subsoil is generally not accounted for in a deterministic slope stability assessment. Probability theory, accounting for uncertainties quantitatively rather than using "cautious estimates" on loads and resistances, may aid to partly bridge the gap between unsaturated soil mechanics and engineering practice.This research investigates the effect of uncertainty in soil property values on the stability of unsaturated soil slopes. Two 2D Finite Element (FE) programs have been developed and implemented into a parallelised Reliability-Based Design (RBD) framework, which allows for the assessment of the failure probability, failure consequence and parameter sensitivity, rather than a deterministic factor of safety. Utilising the Random Finite Element Method (RFEM), within a Monte Carlo framework, multivariate cross-correlated random property fields have been mapped onto the FE mesh to assess the effect of isotropic and anisotropic moderate heterogeneity on the transient slope response, and thus performance.The framework has been applied to a generic slope subjected to different rainfall scenarios. The performance was found to be sensitive to the uncertainty in the effective shear strength parameters, as well as the parameters governing the unsaturated soil behaviour. The failure probability was found to increase most during prolonged rainfall events with a low precipitation rate. Nevertheless, accounting for the unsaturated state resulted in a higher slope reliability than when not considering suction effects. In a heterogeneous deposit failure is attracted to local zones of low shear strength, which, for an unsaturated soil, are a function of both the spatial variability of soil property values, as well as of the soil-water dynamics, leading to a significant increase in the failure probability near the end of the main rainfall event.
Date of Award1 Aug 2017
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • The University of Manchester
SupervisorPauleen Lane (Supervisor)


  • sensitivity analysis
  • uncertainty
  • risk assessment
  • slope stability
  • reliability-based geotechnical design
  • local average subdivision
  • rainfall
  • probability of failure
  • heterogeneity
  • Eurocode 7
  • random field theory
  • unsaturated soil

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