Nooksack River landslide near Deming- Update #2

Red line marks scarp of Feb 21 landslide. A later, undated slide is outlined in green. The second slide send brown soil over the top of the earlier clayey slide.

Red line marks scarp of Feb 21 landslide. A later, undated slide is outlined in green. The second slide sent brown soil over the top of the earlier clayey slide. Click to enlarge any image.

Thursday I visited the toe of the February 21 Clay Banks landslide on the Nooksack River, in company with Scott Linneman (landslide geomorphologist at WWU Geology) and John Thompson, a geologist with Whatcom County Natural Resources. If you haven’t been following this story, please visit Dan McShane’s blog post for the background to the story including some fine maps and photos, and my original post from February 22, the day after the landslide. Dan has also posted a great set of old maps and LiDAR showing changes at the Clay Banks as the river changes position. The landslide occurred just at midnight Friday February 21; you can see the sudden radical, short-lived drop in the river discharge graph below (recorded at the river gage a mile downstream at Cedarville). Click link to annotated You Tube video.

The Nooksack River gage at Cedarville (Nugents Corner) recorded a brief but sharp drop in discharge while the landslide dammed the river.

The Nooksack River gage at Cedarville (Nugents Corner) recorded a very brief but sharp drop in discharge (from ~2500 to 400 cfs) while the landslide dammed the river. Click to enlarge.

Annotated Google Earth image, with corrected location of 2-21 landslide and new river channel at the toe. Click o enlarge any image.

Annotated Google Earth image, with corrected location of 2-21 landslide and new river channel at the toe. Click to enlarge any image.

The Clay Banks are a steep bluff of Pleistocene glacial clay around 100 feet high on the south side of the river about 1.8 river miles upstream of the Nugents Corner bridge. The landslide bit deeply into only the upper half of the bluff, leaving a prominent bench hanging above the river. There is landslide debris on the bench, but most of it appears to have flowed over the bench, down the bottom of the bluff and into the river.

Shaky split log spans a side channel.

Shaky split log spans a side channel.

We crossed a shaky foot log across a narrow side channel to get to the big gravel bar on the north side of the river, and then walked 350 yards to the river side directly opposite the landslide toe. The landslide began in a layer of glacial clay a few meters above a prominent alluvial bed called the Deming Sand. If there is a stratigraphic layer at this level in the Clay Banks that contributed to this landslide it was not apparent using a high power spotting scope.

The toe of the landslide consists of large blocks of clay.

The toe of the landslide consists of large blocks of clay.

The river is still ponded against the landslide toe which protrudes into the river for 200 feet or so from the south bank. The river has cut through the outermost edge of the landslide toe. The river drains the partial impoundment by racing through a 60-foot-wide (19 m, measured with a laser range finder) gap. We couldn’t measure the river depth, but know it was 5 feet right up against the bank we were standing on, and 10 feet or more may be a reasonable guess. The landslide toe consists of car-sized, or maybe even garage-sized, clay blocks, and rests on the surface of a gravel bar; the bar gravel is exposed beneath the debris. At the time of the landslide, the river was closely beneath the high bluff, and the gravel bar we now see beneath the toe was part of the one we were on. The river then cut a new channel around the outer edge of the deposit, isolating the bar gravel beneath the toe from the gravel bar on the north side of the new channel. We found a single, angular clay block lying on the north side side of the channel, and a number of rounded ones. We figure the angular one (see photo below) was tossed laterally out of the landslide toe. It hadn’t been rounded by river flow, so is almost certainly right where it landed at around 12AM Friday 2-21-2014. You can see the same block in Dan McShane’s post, though when he visited the river bank was a few feet furthe away. This block is direct evidence that the river is continuing to cut outward and remove the bar on the north shore. This block will probably tumble into the river in the next few days.

Angular clay block marks extreme outer margin of the landslide toe. River has cut a new channel between this block and the rest of the landslide.

Angular clay block marks extreme outer margin of the landslide toe. River has cut a new channel between this block and the rest of the landslide.

The surface of the landslide toe is covered with large clay blocks. These sit on topo of a pre-landslide gravel bar.

The surface of the landslide toe is covered with large clay blocks. These sit on topo of a pre-landslide gravel bar.

The river makes an end run around the toe, and then cuts sharply south and runs directly into  the base of the bluff below the landslide. This is certainly undercutting the base of the Clay Bank, setting the stage for another collapse, perhaps involving the entire bluff height rather than the upper half.

Among our observations is that there has been a second, much smaller landslide in the same place. We don’t know when this occurred, but it sent darker material over the bank and down onto the southern margin of the Feb 21 toe. Compare the photo taken by Dan McShane on the morning of Feb 22 with the one I took today (Feb 27). The center of the 12-hour old scarp in his photos is now deeper where the 2-?? landslide collapsed. Also in the photos, note the toppled trees that rode the slide over bank.

The Clay Banks extend another 1/4 mile or so upriver and 1/2 mile downriver from the 2-21 landslide. Earth movements have been happening here at various scales for decades, and are likely to continue long into the future.

ACCESS NOTE: All access is over private land, so you are dependent on reports from authorized visitors. Sorry. Don’t even try to get there yourself. It is difficult to see the Clay Banks scarp from anywhere on the north side of the river. You may get a glimpse from the Deming Road somewhere in the first half mile after it branches off Mount Baker Highway a bit east of Nugents Corner. However, you will be 7/10 of a mile away, and for sure can’t see the river or the landslide toe.

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4 Responses

  1. Nice. A fair bit of new slide material has headed over that steep slope. Also, either the river was higher or it has eroded towards the north a bit as the clay block you discuss is now at the water’s edge. Lastly, in the name of science one of you should have crawled out on that log and measured the depth of the river at the channel. Would have been a great video.

  2. The job description of a river is to move the mountains to the sea. Sometimes it happens one grain of sand at a time, other times it moves big chunks. Human activity seems to cause more of the latter.

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