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Investigating progressive slope failure by numerical modelling

The increasing occurrence of slope failure events (e.g. natural slope and embankment) are crucially threatening the resilience and sustainable development of cities worldwide, as they may cause significant damages to populations, buildings, public services and the environment.

In the UK, 10% of slopes are classified as at moderate to significant landslide risk, with more than 7% of the main transport networks located in these areas. Most of these slopes/embankments are in excess of 150 years old and do not offer comparable levels of capability and resilience to modern engineered slopes. They may fail after prolonged periods of wet weather or more intensive short duration rainfall events. Internationally, slope failure represents a major hazard to human life, property and lifeline facilities, infrastructures, and natural environment in most mountainous and hilly regions.

To date, the public awareness of slope failure risk is high, but our fundamental understanding of its progressive failure mechanism and countermeasures are still limited. This is mainly due to the difficulties in analysing the multiscale responses and characterize the spatial inhomogeneity of material properties of slopes. The fundamental scientific issue of these challenges is the weakening mechanism of inhomogeneous slopes at different scales as it determines the slope responses under various geological and environmental conditions. In this research “Multiscale and probabilistic modelling of progressive slope failure” supported by EPSRC, we will develop advanced numerical tools in a multiscale and probabilistic modelling approach to investigate the physic-mechanical mechanisms ruling the progressive failure of slopes and the subsequent landslide dynamics.

The proposed research has the potential to radically improve the current methodologies used in assessing the slope stability and landslide impact on infrastructures. The research will be extremely useful for producing efficient and reliable prediction and mitigation measures of slope failure hazards under changing environmental conditions.

Based on this research, it is hoped that engineering designs and constructions of various slopes can be more economic and reliable.


  • Zhao, T., Liu, Y. A novel random discrete element analysis of rock fragmentation. International Journal for Numerical and Analytical Methods in Geomechanics, 2020, 44: 1386-1395. (DOI: 10.1002/nag.3067)
  • Zhao T. *, Crosta G. B.. On the dynamic fragmentation and lubrication of coseismic landslides. Journal of Geophysical Research: Solid Earth, 2018, 123, 11, 9914-9932.
  • Zhao, T.*, Crosta, G. B., Utili, S. & Dattola, G. Dynamic fragmentation of jointed rock blocks during rockslide-avalanches: insights from discrete element analyses. Journal of Geophysical Research: Solid Earth, 2018,123, 4, 3250–3269 (doi: 10.1002/2017JB015210)
  • Zhao, T.*, Crosta, G. B., Utili, S. & De Blasio, F. V. Investigation of rock fragmentation during rockfalls and rock avalanches via 3-D discrete element analyses. Journal of Geophysical Research: Earth Surface, 2017, 122(3), 678-695.

Meet the Principal Investigator(s) for the project

Dr Tao Zhao - Dr. Tao Zhao is a senior Lecturer in Geotechnical Engineering in the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering at Brunel University London. Prior to joining Brunel University, he was an Assistant Professor in Geotechnical Engineering at Sichuan University, China during 2015-2018. Tao was a visiting scholar in The Hong Kong University of Science and Technology in 2016. Dr Zhao is a Chartered Civil Engineer (CEng) and a Member of the Institution of Civil Engineers (MICE).  Tao received his DPhil (PhD) degree in Engineering Science from University of Oxford in 2014. His DPhil research project was “Investigation of Landslide-Induced Debris Flows by the DEM and CFD”, supervised by Prof. Guy Houlsby and Prof. Stefano Utili. Tao holds a BEng degree in Civil Engineering awarded in 2010 by Tongji University, China. Tao’s research interest spans a broad range of computational analysis of geotechnics and geohazards. Over the past 10 years, he has been working on the computer modelling of landslides, debris flows, and rock avalanches using the discrete element method (DEM) and computational fluid dynamics (CFD). His research focuses on progressive slope failure, coastal erosion and submarine landlsides. Tao has been dedicated to understanding the underlying physics of these geohazards and establish predictive models. Tao has published more than 60 high-quality peer-reviewed scientific papers on leading research journals with an H-index of 28 from the Google Scholar Dr Zhao is a scientific editorial board member of the journals: Deep Underground Science and Engineering ( (Associate Director of the Early Career Editorial Board) Landslides ( Journal of Rock Mechanics and Geotechnical Engineering (

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Geotechnical and Environmental Engineering - Delivering a new understanding of our geo-environment and critical infrastructure in diverse ecosystems, for predicting and preventing catastrophic failure and responding to the need for decarbonisation and energy security.

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Project last modified 19/04/2021