Skip to main content Accessibility help
  • Get access
    Check if you have access via personal or institutional login
  • Cited by 18
  • Print publication year: 2012
  • Online publication date: May 2013

22 - Rockfall characterization and modeling



Rockfalls pose a significant threat to life and property, although significant advances in rockfall protection have been made in the past decade. Determining rockfall processes and related hazard, however, remains a difficult task because of the complexity and intrinsic stochastic nature of the physics involved. The appropriate application of rockfall modeling tools requires a thorough understanding of their logic, assumptions, advantages, and limitations, as well as careful assessment of rockfall sources, block and slope characteristics, and model calibration data. This chapter provides a discussion of major issues in rockfall definition, characterization, and modeling, with special emphasis on rockfall runout. Our discussion is supported by modeling examples carried out using the 3D simulator Hy-STONE. Different modeling approaches are critically evaluated, including the empirical shadow angle method, and 2D and 3D mathematical models. Application of the shadow angle concept requires the user to be aware of several issues related to definition of the shadow angle and the effects of morphological constraints. Most limitations of empirical approaches can be overcome with mathematical models that account for slope morphology and roughness, energy dissipation at impact or by rolling, and the effects of vegetation, block fragmentation, and block–structure interaction. We discuss different modeling approaches and calibration problems and the important dependency of model parameters and results on correct characterization of the topography.

Related content

Powered by UNSILO


Abellán, A., Vilaplana, J.M., Calvet, J., García-Sellés, D. and Asensio, E. (2011). Rockfall monitoring by Terrestrial Laser Scanning: Case study of the basaltic rock face at Castellfollit de la Roca (Catalonia, Spain). Natural Hazards and Earth System Sciences, 11, 829–841.
Agliardi, F. and Crosta, G. (2003). High resolution three-dimensional numerical modelling of rockfalls. International Journal of Rock Mechanics and Mining Sciences, 40(4), 455–471.
Agliardi, F., Crosta, G.B. and Frattini, P. (2009). Integrating rockfall risk assessment and countermeasure design by 3D modelling techniques. Natural Hazards and Earth System Sciences, 9, 1059–1073.
Ammi, M., Oger, L., Beladjine, D. and Valance, A. (2009). Three-dimensional analysis of the collision process of a bead on a granular packing. Physical Review E: Statistical, Nonlinear, and Soft Matter Physics, 79, 021305.
Azzoni, A. and de Freitas, M.H. (1995). Experimentally gained parameters, decisive for rock fall analysis. Rock Mechanics and Rock Engineering, 28, 111–124.
Azzoni, A., La Barbera, G. and Zaninetti, A. (1995). Analysis and prediction of rock falls using a mathematical model. International Journal of Rock Mechanics and Mining Sciences & Geomechanical Abstracts, 32, 709–724.
Bourrier, F., Nicot, F. and Darve, F. (2008). Physical processes within a 2D granular layer during an impact. Granular Matter, 10, 415–437.
Bourrier, F., Eckert, N., Nicot, F. and Darve, F. (2009). Bayesian stochastic modeling of a spherical rock bouncing on a coarse soil. Natural Hazards and Earth System Sciences, 9, 831–846.
Bozzolo, D. and Pamini, R. (1986). Simulation of rock falls down a valley side. Acta Mechanica, 63, 113–130.
Broili, L. (1973). In situ tests for the study of rock fall. Geologia Applicata e Idrogeologia, 8, 105–111 (in Italian).
Broili, L. (1977). Relations between scree slope morphometry and dynamics of accumulation processes. In Proceedings of the Meeting on Rock Fall Dynamics and Protective Work Effectiveness, Bergamo, Italy: ISMES, pp. 11–23.
Calvetti, F. and di Prisco, C. (2009). An uncoupled approach for the design of rockfall protection tunnels. Structural Engineering International, 19, 342–347.
Cancelli, A. and Crosta, G. (1993). Hazard and risk assessment in rockfall prone areas. In Risk Reliability in Ground Engineering, ed. B.O. Skip. London: Thomas Telford, pp. 177–190.
Chang, K.T. and Tsai, B.W. (1991). The effect of DEM resolution on slope and aspect mapping. Cartography and Geographic Information Science, 18, 69–77.
Chau, K.T., Wong, R.H.C. and Wu, J.J. (2002). Coefficient of restitution and rotational motions of rockfall impacts. International Journal of Rock Mechanics and Mining Sciences, 39, 69–77.
Chau, K.T., Wu, S.Z., Zhu, W.C., Tang, C.A. and Yu, T.X. (2003). Dynamic fracture and fragmentation of spheres. In 16th ASCE Engineering Mechanics Conference. Seattle: University of Washington.
Copons, R. and Vilaplana, J.M. (2008). Rockfall susceptibility zoning at a large scale: From geomorphological inventory to preliminary land use planning. Engineering Geology, 102, 142–151.
Copons, R., Vilaplana, J.M. and Linares, R. (2009). Rockfall travel distance analysis by using empirical models (Solà d’Andorra la Vella, Central Pyrenees). Natural Hazards and Earth System Sciences, 9, 2107–2118.
Crosta, G.B. and Agliardi, F. (2003). A new methodology for physically based rockfall hazard assessment. Natural Hazards and Earth System Sciences, 3, 407–422.
Crosta, G.B. and Agliardi, F. (2004). Parametric evaluation of 3D dispersion of rockfall trajectories. Natural Hazards and Earth System Sciences, 4, 583–598.
Crosta, G.B., Agliardi, F., Frattini, P. and Imposimato, S. (2004). A three-dimensional hybrid numerical model for rockfall simulation. Geophysical Research Abstracts, 6, 04502.
Crosta, G.B., Frattini, P., Imposimato, S. and Agliardi, F. (2006). Modeling vegetation and fragmentation effects on rockfalls. Geophysical Research Abstracts, 8, 07694.
Cruden, D.M. and Varnes, D.J. (1996). Landslides types and processes. In Landslides: Investigation and Mitigation, ed. A.K. Turner and R.L. Schuster. Transportation Research Board, Report 247, pp. 36–71.
Cundall, P.A. (1971). A computer model for simulating progressive large scale movements in blocky rock systems. In Proceedings of the Symposium of the International Society of Rock Mechanics, Nancy, France, pp. 129–136.
di Prisco, C. and Vecchiotti, M. (2006). A rheological model for the description of boulder impacts on granular strata, Geotechnique, 56, 469–482.
Domaas, U. (1994). Geometrical Methods of Calculating Rockfall Range. Norwegian Geotechnical Institute, Report 585910–1.
Dorren, L.K.A., Maier, B., Putters, U.S. and Seijmonsbergen, A.C. (2004). Combining field and modeling techniques to assess rockfall dynamics on a protection forest hillslope in the European Alps. Geomorphology, 57, 151–167.
Dorren, L.K.A., Berger, F., le Hir, C., Mermin, E. and Tardif, P. (2005). Mechanisms, effects and management implications of rockfall in forests. Forest Ecology and Management, 215, 183–195.
Dorren, L.K.A., Berger, F. and Putters, U.S. (2006). Real size experiments and 3D simulation of rockfall on forested and non-forested slopes. Natural Hazards and Earth System Sciences, 6, 145–153.
Dussauge, C., Grasso, J.-R. and Helmstetter, A. (2003). Statistical analysis of rockfall volume distributions: Implications for rockfall dynamics. Journal of Geophysical Research, 108(B6), 2286.
Evans, D.L., Roberts, S.D., McCombs, J.W. and Harrington, R.L. (2001). Detection of regularly spaced targets in small-footprint LiDAR data: Research issues for consideration. Photogrammetric Engineering & Remote Sensing, 67, 1133–1136.
Evans, S.G. and Hungr, O. (1993). The assessment of rock fall hazard at the base of talus slopes. Canadian Geotechnical Journal, 30, 620–636.
Falcetta, J.L. (1985). Un nouveau modèle de calcul de trajectoires de blocs rocheux. Revue Française de Géotechnique, 30, 11–17 (in French).
Frattini, P., Crosta, G.B., Carrara, A. and Agliardi, F. (2008). Assessment of rockfall susceptibility by integrating statistical and physically based approaches. Geomorphology, 94, 419–437.
Giacomini, A., Buzzi, O., Renard, B. and Giani, G.P. (2009). Experimental studies on fragmentation of rock falls on impact with rock surfaces. International Journal of Rock Mechanics and Mining Sciences, 46, 708–715.
Gokceoglu, C., Sonmez, H. and Ercanoglu, M. (2000). Discontinuity controlled probabilistic slope failure risk maps of the Altindag (settlement) region in Turkey. Engineering Geology, 55, 277–296.
Günther, A., Carstensen, A. and Pohl, W. (2004). Automated sliding susceptibility mapping of rock slopes. Natural Hazards Earth System Sciences, 4, 95–102.
Guzzetti, F., Crosta, G., Detti, R. and Agliardi, F. (2002). STONE: A computer program for the three-dimensional simulation of rock-falls. Computers and Geosciences, 28, 1081–1095.
Heim, A. (1932). Bergsturz und Menschenleben. Zurich, Switzerland: Fretz and Wasmuth Verlag.
Heinimann, H.R., Holtenstein, K., Kienholz, H., Krummenhacher, B. and Mani, P. (1998). Methoden zur Analyse und Bewertung von Naturgefahren. Umwelt-Materialien 85, Naturgefahren. Bern, Switzerland: BUWAL (in German).
Holm, K. and Jakob, M. (2009). Long rockfall runout, Pascua Lama, Chile. Canadian Geotechnical Journal, 46, 225–230.
Hungr, O., Evans, S.G. and Hazzard, J. (1999). Magnitude and frequency of rockfalls and rock slides along the main transportation corridors of south-western British Columbia. Canadian Geotechnical Journal, 36, 224–238.
Jaboyedoff, M. and Labiouse, V. (2011). Technical Note: Preliminary estimation of rockfall runout zones. Natural Hazards and Earth System Sciences, 11, 819–828.
Jaboyedoff, M., Baillifard, F., Hantz, D., Heidenreich, B. and Mazzoccola, D. (2001). Terminologie. In Prevention des Mouvements de Versants et des Instabilités de Falaises. Programme Interreg IIc: “Falaises”, Report 48–57.
Jaboyedoff, M., Dudt, J.P. and Labiouse, V. (2005). An attempt to refine rockfall zoning based on kinetic energy, frequency and fragmentation degree. Natural Hazards and Earth System Sciences, 5, 621–632.
Jaboyedoff, M., Metzger, R., Oppikofer, al. (2007). New insight techniques to analyze rock-slope relief using DEM and 3D-imaging cloud points: COLTOP-3D. In Rock Mechanics: Meeting Society’s Challenges and Demands, ed. E. Eberhardt, D. Stead and T. Morrison. London: Taylor and Francis, pp. 61–68.
Jones, C.L., Higgins, J.D. and Andrew, R.D. (2000). Colorado Rock Fall Simulation Program Version 4.0. Denver, CO: Colorado Department of Transportation, Colorado Geological Survey.
Koukoulas, S. and Blackburn, G.A. (2005). Mapping individual tree location, height and species in broadleaved deciduous forest using airborne LiDAR and multi-spectral remotely sensed data. International Journal of Remote Sensing, 26, 431–455.
Labiouse, V. and Heidenreich, B. (2009). Half-scale experimental study of rockfall impacts on sandy slopesNatural Hazards and Earth System Sciences, 9, 1981–1993.
Lan, H., Martin, C.D. and Lim, C.H. (2007). RockFall analyst: A GIS extension for three-dimensional and spatially distributed rockfall hazard modeling. Computers & Geosciences, 33, 262–279.
Lied, K. (1977). Rockfall problems in Norway. In Proceedings of the Meeting on Rock Fall Dynamics and Protective Work Effectiveness. Bergamo, Italy: ISMES, pp. 51–53.
Loye, A., Jaboyedoff, M. and Pedrazzini, A. (2009). Identification of potential rockfall source areas at a regional scale using a DEM-based geomorphometric analysis. Natural Hazards and Earth System Sciences, 9, 1643–1653.
Lundström, T., Jonsson, M.J., Volkwein, A. and Stoffel, M. (2009). Reactions and energy absorption of trees subject to rockfall: A detailed assessment using a new experimental method. Tree Physiology, 29, 345–359.
Meissl, G. (1998). Modellierung der Reichweite von Felsstürzen. Fallbeispiele zur GIS-gestützten Gefahrenbeurteilung aus dem Bayerischen und Tiroler Alpenraum. Innsbrucker Geographische Studien, Band 28 (in German).
Nichol, M.R. and Watters, R.J. (1983). Comparison and effectiveness of rock fall mitigation techniques applied by states in the USA and Canada. In Proceedings of the 20th Annual Engineering Geology and Soil Engineering Symposium. Boise, ID: Idaho Transportation Department, Division of Highways, pp. 123–142.
Nocilla, N., Evangelista, A. and Scotto di Santolo, A. (2008). Fragmentation during rock falls: Two Italian case studies of hard and soft rocks. Rock Mechanics and Rock Engineering, 42, 815–833.
Onofri, R. and Candian, C. (1979). Indagine sui Limiti di Massima Invasione dei Blocchi Rocciosi Franati durante il Sisma del Friuli del 1976. Udine, Italy: CLUET (in Italian).
Pfeiffer, T.J. and Bowen, T.D. (1989). Computer simulations of rockfalls. Bulletin of the Association of Engineering Geologists, 26, 135–146.
Pierson, L.A., Davis, S.A. and Van Vickle, R. (1990). Rockfall Hazard Rating System Implementation Manual. US Department of Transportation, Federal Highway Administration Report FHWA-OREG-90–01.
Piteau, D.R. and Clayton, R. (1976). Computer rockfall model. In Proceedings of the Meeting on Rock Fall Dynamics and Protective Work Effectiveness. Bergamo, Italy: ISMES, pp. 123–125.
Rioual, F., Valance, A. and Bideau, D. (2000). Experimental study of the collision process of a grain on a two-dimensional granular bed. Physical Review E, 62, 2450–2459.
Ritchie, A.M. (1963). Evaluation of rockfall and its control. Transportation Research Record, 17, 13–28.
Rochet, L. (1987). Application des modèles numériques de propagation à l’étude des éboulements rocheux. Bulletin Liaison Pont Chaussée, 150/151, 84–95 (in French).
Rouiller, J.D., Jaboyedoff, M., Marro, C., Philippossian, F. and Mamin, M. (1998). Pentes Instables dans le Pennique Valaisan. Matterock: Une Méthodologie d’Auscultation des Falaises et de Détection des Éboulements Majeurs Potentiels. Zurich: VDF Hochschulverlag AG and ETH.
Scheidegger, A.E. (1973). On the prediction of the reach and velocity of catastrophic landslides. Rock Mechanics, 5, 231–236.
Stevens, W. (1998). RocFall: A tool for probabilistic analysis, design of remedial measures and prediction of rockfalls. M.A.Sc. thesis, University of Toronto, Toronto, ON.
Sturzenegger, M., Yan, M., Stead, D. and Elmo, D. (2007). Application and limitations of ground-based laser scanning in rock slope characterization. In Rock Mechanics: Meeting Society’s Challenges and Demands, ed. E. Eberhardt, D. Stead and T. Morrison. London: Taylor and Francis, 29–36.
Tonon, F. and Kottenstette, J.T. (2006). Laser and photogrammetric methods for rock face characterization: A workshop. In Laser and Photogrammetric Methods for Rock Face Characterization, ed. F. Tonon and J.T. Kottenstette. Alexandria, VA: American Rock Mechanics Association, pp. 5–10.
Toppe, R. (1987). Terrain models as a tool for natural hazard mapping. In Avalanche Formation, Movement and Effects, ed. B. Salm and H. Gubler. International Association of Hydrological Sciences, Publication 162, pp. 629–638.
Volkwein, A., Roth, A., Gerber, W. and Vogel, A. (2009). Flexible rockfall barriers subjected to extreme loads. Structural Engineering International, 19, 327–331.
Wang, Y. and Tonon, F. (2009). Discrete element modeling of impact fragmentation in rock fall analysis. In Proceedings of the 43rd US Rock Mechanics Symposium and 5th U.S.–Canada Rock Mechanics Symposium, Asheville, NC, Paper 09–153.
Wang, Y., Tonon, F., Crosta, G.B., Agliardi, F. and Zavodni, Z.M. (2010). 3-D modeling of rockfall fragmentation at impact using a discrete element model. In Proceedings of the 44th US Rock Mechanics Symposium and 5th U.S.–Canada Rock Mechanics Symposium, Salt Lake City, UT, Paper 10–204.
Wieczorek, G.F. and Snyder, J.B. (1999). Rock Falls from Glacier Point above Camp Curry, Yosemite National Park, California. US Geological Survey, Open File Report 99–385.
Wieczorek, G.F., Morrissey, M.M., Iovine, G. and Godt, J. (1998). Rock-Fall Hazards in the Yosemite Valley. US Geological Survey, Open File Report 98–467, scale 1:12,000.
Wieczorek, G.F., Snyder, J.B., Waitt, al. (2000). The unusual air blast and dense sandy cloud triggered by the 10 July 1996, rock fall at Happy Isles, Yosemite National Park, California. Geological Society of America Bulletin, 112, 75–85.
Wong, R.H., Ho, K.W. and Chau, K.T. (2000). Shape and mechanical properties of slope material effects on the coefficient of restitution on rockfall study. In Proceedings of the 4th North American Rock Mechanics Symposium NARMS 2000, Seattle, pp. 507–514.
Yashima, S., Kanda, Y. and Sano, S. (1987). Relationships between particle size and fracture energy or impact velocity required to fracture as estimated from single particle crushing. Powder Technology, 51, 277–282.
Zinggeler, A., Krummenacher, B. and Kienholz, H. (1991). Steinschlagsimulation in Gebirgswäldern. Berichte und Forschungen, 3, 61–70 (in German).