Identification of rock and fracture kinematics in high alpine rockwalls under the influence of elevation

Draebing, Daniel

In alpine environments, tectonic processes, past glaciation and weathering processes fracture rock and prepare or trigger rockfalls, which are important processes of rock slope evolution and natural hazards. In this study, I quantify thermally and ice-induced rock and fracture kinematics and place these in the context of their role in producing rockfall and climate change. I conducted laboratory measurements on intact rock samples and installed temperature loggers and crackmeters at four rockwalls reaching from 2585 to 2935 m in elevation in the Hungerli Valley, Swiss Alps. My laboratory data show that thermal expansion followed three phases of rock kinematics, which resulted in a hysteresis effect. In the field, control crackmeters on intact rock reflected these temperature phases, and based on thermal expansion coefficients of these observed phases, I modelled thermal stress. Model results show that thermal stress magnitudes were predominantly below rock strengths. Crackmeters across fractures revealed fracture opening during cooling and reverse closing behaviour during warming on daily timescales. Elevation-dependent snow cover controlled the number of daily temperature changes and thermal stresses affecting both intact and fractured rock, while the magnitude is controlled by topographic factors influencing insolation. On a seasonal scale, slow ice-segregation-induced fracture opening can occur within lithology-dependent temperature regimes called frost cracking windows. Shear plane dipping controlled whether fractures opened or closed irreversibly with time due to thermally induced block crawling on an annual scale. Climate change will shorten snow duration and increase temperature extremes and will, therefore, affect the number and the magnitude of thermal changes and associated stresses. Earlier snowmelt in combination with temperature increase will shift the ice-induced kinematic processes to higher elevations. In conclusion, climate change will affect and change rock and fracture kinematics and, therefore, change rockfall patterns in alpine environments. Future work should quantify rockfall patterns and link these patterns to climatic drivers.

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Draebing, Daniel: Identification of rock and fracture kinematics in high alpine rockwalls under the influence of elevation. 2021. Copernicus Publications.

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