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Classification and Characterisation of Tropical Residual Soils
Laurence D Wesley
University of Auckland

An account is given of the characteristics of tropical residual soils and possible methods for classifying them.
Because tropical residual soils are a very broad group the paper does not describe each group in detail. Instead the
paper focuses on the most important characteristics of residual soils that geotechnical engineers should be aware
of. The property that most distinguishes them from sedimentary soils is their formation process so this is covered in
some detail. Additional characteristics include their mineralogy, structure, and high permeability. Of particular
importance to geotechnical engineers is the stability of slopes in residual soils and it is shown that there are
significant differences between their behaviour and that of most sedimentary soils. Because of their very unusual
properties, volcanic soils are given special attention.

Se da cuenta de las características de los suelos residuales tropicales y posibles métodos para su clasificación.
Debido a que los suelos tropicales residuales son un grupo muy amplio, este artículo no describe cada grupo en
detalle. En cambio, este artículo se centra en las características más importantes que los ingenieros geotécnicos
deben tener en cuenta. La propiedad que más distingue estos suelos de los suelos sedimentarios es su proceso de
formación, por lo que este aspecto se cubre en detalle. Características adicionales incluyen su mineralogía,
estructura y alta permeabilidad. De particular relevancia para los ingenieros geotécnicos es la estabilidad de
taludes en suelos residuales y se demuestra que existen diferencias significativas entre su comportamiento y el de la
mayoría en suelos sedimentarios. Debido a sus inusuales propiedades, los suelos volcánicos son revisados con
especial atención.

1.INTRODUCTION 3) Some residual soils, especially those of volcanic origin,

may have very unusual properties due to the presence of
Tropical residual soils are not dramatically different from clay minerals not found in sedimentary soils.
residual soils in general, but are no doubt the most abundant 4) Some residual soils are highly structured and of high
group of residual groups. It is natural that the prevalence of sensitivity. Also in their undisturbed state some are not
residual soils decreases in proportion to the distance from strictly particulate, that is, they do not consist of discrete
the equator. The closer they are to the equator, the more particles. Such soils may appear to consist of individual
intense is the weathering, resulting in both a greater depth of particles, but when disturbed or remoulded the particles
weathering and the creation of soil types not found in disintegrate into smaller particles.
temperate climates. The following is a list of the most 5) Empirical correlations between soil properties developed
significant characteristics of residual soils that distinguish from the study of sedimentary soils may not be valid
them from sedimentary soils. when applied to residual soils.
6) The water table in residual soils is often relatively deep,
1) Residual soils are generally much more heterogeneous and subject to fluctuations from climatic effects. Thus
than sedimentary soils. much of the action of interest to geotechnical engineers
2) Because they have not been formed by a sedimentation takes place above the water table, and an understanding
process, stress history is irrelevant, and the conceptual of the pore pressure regime above the water table
framework for understanding sedimentary soils involving becomes an important component to understanding
the e-log p plot and the division into normally- residual soil behaviour.
consolidated and over-consolidated soils is not applicable 7) Residual soils are normally of much higher permeability
to residual soils. than sedimentary soils. This has implications regarding
slope behaviour and the interpretation of oedometer tests

8) Slopes in residual soils are generally much steeper than
in sedimentary soils, which also has implications for the Figure 1 illustrates conceptually the formation of residual
way slip circle analysis is applied to residual soil slopes. and sedimentary soils. Important features of these formation
9) In evaluating the properties of residual soils it is very processes are the following:
important to first observe carefully their behaviour in the
field, before looking at the results of laboratory tests. a) Chemical weathering is a complex process which
10) Despite statements made in some publications, it is not converts rock into soil, or to be more precise, which
the case that residual soils are generally unsaturated. converts rock minerals into clay minerals.
Those formed in the wet tropics are likely to have high
clay contents, and this fact along with the relatively wet b) Once the soil is formed it may remain in place, in
climates in which they exist mean that they are fully which case it is a residual soil. However, much of it
saturated apart from a shallow zone at the surface. may be eroded and transported by streams and rivers to
a lake or sea where it is deposited in layers to form a
Despite the above differences, it should be clearly sedimentary soil.
understood that the most fundamental concepts and
principles of soil mechanics are just as valid for residual c) This transportation and sedimentation is a type of
soils as for sedimentary soils. These concepts include the selection process which results in the formation of
principle of effective stress, the Mohr-Coulomb failure reasonably homogeneous soils. Coarse particles are
criteria, the laws governing both seepage and consolidation. deposited in one place and fine particles in a different
The differences between the two groups arise from the process. This process thus gives sedimentary soils a
differences in their mode of formation; these will become degree of homogeneity that is not present in residual
apparent in the following sections of this paper. soils.


Erosion by rainfall
and runoff

Residual soil
Transport by stream
Delta and river
Sea or lake level

Sedimentary soil Rock

Figure 1. Formation of residual and sedimentary soils.

Well drained hilly and mountainous areas:

Downward seepage results in deep weathering
and soils tend to have good engineering properties

Poorly drained, flat, low lying areas:

Downward seepage Absence of vertical drainage results in
shallow weathering and soils of poor
engineering properties

Figure 2. Influence of topography on the weathering process, and the properties of the soil.

d) In tropical areas, residual soils are likely to have higher the temperate or sub-tropical climate of Hong Kong
clay content and be of higher plasticity that those generally have a clay fraction of less than 20% while
formed in more temperate climates. An example of this those in the tropical climate of Malaysia have a clay
is soils from the weathering of granite. Those found in contents up to 50%.

Figure 3(b) shows the profile typical of weathered basalt
e) Topography has an important influence on the weathering rock. In this case the transition zone is a very narrow one, of
process and the type of soil formed. Soils formed in the order of only a few centimetres, or even millimetres.
hilly, well drained areas generally have good This is frequently the case with the weathered basalt soils
engineering properties, while those formed in low lying found in the North Island of New Zealand, and is also the
poorly drained areas have poor engineering properties, case with red clays derived from andesitic or basaltic rock in
as illustrated in Figure 2. Soils with a high Java, Indonesia. Townsend (1985) indicates that the
montmorillonite content are usually found in flat poorly weathering process is different in acidic and basic rocks, and
drained areas. comments: “one major difference between the basic and
acidic rocks is that most pedologists suggest that basic rocks
3. THE WEATHERING PROFILE weather rapidly into soils, providing a sharp contact zone
with the weathering of minerals occurring within a layer of
The weathering profile is very dependent on the type of only a few millimetres. Conversely, the zone of alteration in
parent material and does not necessarily involve a gradual acidic quartz-rich rocks appears to be quite thick”.
transition from soil at the surface to fresh rock at
considerable depth. Figure 3 shows four possible Volcanic soils, indicated in Figure 3(c), are generally
weathering profiles. The first, in Figure 3(a) shows a gradual different again. They are often made up of layers of ash or
transition from soil to rock involving six grades of possibly lahar flow material, which may have been
weathering. This profile, first put forward by Little (1969), is weathered to varying degrees before the next layer is
found in many publications on residual soils and tends to deposited. This means that the degree of weathering is not
create the impression that this profile is valid for all residual directly related to depth, as each time a new layer is
soils. This is definitely not the case. Little made it clear that deposited the material below it has already undergone some
the classification system he proposed was intended for the weathering. The nature of the weathering profile is
residue resulting from the weathering of igneous rocks in the dependent on both the frequency of eruptions and the nature
humid tropics, and not for weathering profiles generally. As of the ejected material.
shown in Fig. 3(a), the profile consists of a series of thick
zones of not greatly differing thicknesses. With sedimentary rocks, especially soft sandstones,
mudstones, and shales, the picture is different again, and is
6 Soil:
indicated in Figure 3(d). The weathering process in this case
clay or silt may not be one in which rock minerals are broken up and
5 Completely converted chemically into clay minerals, but one in which
weathered cementing agents are dissolved by percolating water, thus
Soil: clay or silt
4 Highly
releasing clay minerals already existing in the parent rock. In
weathered this situation, the soil profile is likely to reflect both the
3 Moderately weathering sequence and the different layers in the parent
weathered rock. When the parent rock consists of inter-bedded
sandstone and mudstone, for example, this may be reflected
rock in the resulting soil, which will consist of inter-bedded layers
1 Fresh rock Fresh rock of silty sand and clay, as indicated in Figure 3(d). This is the
(a) Gradual weathering (b) Sharp transition case with the residual soils in the Auckland area of New
profile - typical of from rock to soil
weathered granite - typical of weathered
Zealand derived from weathering of a soft sandstone and
basalt mudstone formation. It is a soft rock with unconfined
compression strength generally in the range of 1500kPa to
Silty clay layers,
but distinguished
Soil: Inter-bedded
by slightly different
clay, silty clay, silt, The term “structure” is widely used these days in soil
and dense silty sand
mechanics, although not always with the same meaning. In
the early days of the subject it appears to have been used
mainly to describe those features of the soil that are clearly
visible to the naked eye, such as bedding planes, joints, fault
Fresh rock Fresh rock: discontinuities, and root holes. These features are best
inter-bedded termed macro-structure. In more recent times it has been
sandstone and
clay-stone used more specifically, that is, to designate the way in which
(c) Uniform layers, degree of (d) Stratified nature of parent rock the particles are arranged to form the soil skeleton itself. A
weathering not necessarily reflected in soil profile - typical
related to depth - typical of of weathering of soft sedimentary
highly structured soil is one in which the particles are
volcanic ash rock, especially sandstone. arranged or even bonded together in such a way that the soil
Figure 3. Weathering profiles in residual soils. skeleton has characteristics quite different from those of a
simple collection of individual particles. This kind of

structure, which cannot be seen with the naked eye, is artificially bonded soils have been created and used in
termed micro-structure. laboratory studies of soil behaviour, in the belief that this is a
reasonable representation of residual soil behaviour. These
Silt or fine Silt or fine are valuable studies, but we should note their limitations,
Plate-like sand particles Bonding at sand particles especially with respect to residual soils. The weathering
clay particles contacts process, at least in igneous rocks and other hard rocks, is
normally one that weakens the rock by breaking it up and
converting rock minerals into clay minerals, not one that
cements together existing hard particles

Finally, Figure 4(c) shows a “honeycomb” structure,

which consists of a skeleton of relatively weak material with
very large void space. The honeycomb material may be a
single material or may be concentrations or aggregations of
particles. This honeycomb structure appears to be valid for
many sensitive or highly sensitive volcanic soils.
(a) “Normal” clay (b) Cemented structure
The most essential point to be appreciated with respect to
soil structure is that compression of the soil does not just
involve pressing the particles into a tighter arrangement. It
Weak Void also involves destroying the natural structure of the soil, and
skeleton space in effect producing a new material. Compression of
structured soils is thus also a form of re-moulding the soil.
The point at which the structure begins to collapse may
indicate a yield pressure in the soil but this is not necessarily
the case.

(c) Honeycomb structure 5. UNUSUAL CLAY MINERALS FOUND IN

Figure 4. Conceptual portrayals of micro-structure (after
Wesley, 2010) Some soils derived from volcanic materials contain very
unusual clay minerals, that not surprisingly give them
The existence of micro-structure in soils has long been extraordinary geotechnical properties. These clay minerals
recognised, in both sedimentary and residual soils; indeed it are illustrated diagrammatically in Figure 5.
is self evident from the fact that nearly all natural soils have
some sensitivity. At the same time, its importance in Allophane
influencing soil behaviour seems to have been rather lost spheres
sight of, or displaced, in favour of the stress history model of
soil behaviour. In recent years, however, the influence of
structure has been increasingly recognised, in both
sedimentary and residual soils. The terms “ageing” or
“hardening” are being increasingly used to describe this
effect. Imogolite
Many residual soils, but certainly not all, are highly
micro-structured, and various conceptual pictures of their
structure have been put forward. Several examples are (a) allophane and imogolite
shown in Figure 4. The first diagram, 4(a), for a “normal”
undisturbed clay, shows an array of plate-like clay particles
occupying void space between the coarser silt or fine sand
particles. Soils with such an arrangement of particles may be
relatively insensitive, indicating that the influence of
structure is not great, or they may be highly sensitive, as is
the case with “quick” clays, and some volcanic ash clays,
indicating that they are highly structured. (b) halloysite
The second diagram, Figure 4(b), shows a common Figure 5 Diagrammatic form of allophane and halloysite
concept of the structure of cemented or bonded soils, particles (after Wesley, 2010)
particularly residual soils. This is a useful concept, and

They generally form from layers of volcanic ash produced derived from a shale formation, tropical red clay and
by andesitic eruptions. Andesitic eruptions are the most allophane clays. . This data is taken from site investigations
common type of volcanic activity along the Andes mountain and research projects in New Zealand and Indonesia. The
range, which is not surprising since the rock named andesite position of the allophane clays is unusual in two respects.
is derived from that mountain range. The essential property Firstly the liquid limit values cover a wide range and are
of the ash that results in the formation of allophane is that it extraordinarily high, and secondly they lie well below the A-
is non-crystalline or amorphous. The very rapid cooling of line. The tropical red clays lie below the A-line and the clays
fine molten particles that are ejected by successive derived from shale lie above the A-line.
explosions of an andesitic eruption does not allow sufficient
time for a crystalline structure to develop. This is similar to Soil from an old shale formation
Tropical red clay (halloysite)
the formation of the shiny black rock know as obsidian, Allophane clay
which readers may be familiar with. 100
80 A-
Because the parent material is non crystalline, the

Plasticity Index
allophane particles do not have a well developed crystalline 60
structure. They consist of very tiny spheres interwoven with
another clay mineral known as imogolite, which consists of 40
fine thread-like fibres. The combination gives allophane
clays a very open structure that sometimes results in clays of
very high sensitivity. Allophane and imogolite are produced
by the immediate weathering of the parent ash. With time, 0 40 80 120 160 200 240
Liquid Limit
continued weathering produces a series of clay minerals as
follows: Figure 6 Allophane and halloysite clays on the plasticity
Volcanic ash allophane & imogolite chart
halloysite kaolinite According to their position on the chart in the USCS
sesqui-oxides laterite. system, the red clays and the allophane soils classify as silts.
However, neither of them actually behave as silt. They do
Halloysite is the next mineral formed from the allophane. not show "quick" behaviour when shaken nor dilatancy
Halloysite clays have rather unusual properties but not when deformed. The red clay feels like high plasticity soil,
nearly as surprising as allophane clays. With further and is a very sticky material, while the allophane clay has an
weathering halloysite changes into the common clay mineral unusual feel, somewhere between a clay and a silt. The
kaolinite. The weathering process is essentially one of conventional plasticity chart is thus not a good guide to the
chemical conversion accompanied by the leaching out of classification of these soils.
silica by seeping ground-water. As the silica content
decreases, the concentration of iron and aluminium However, the plasticity chart is still very useful as an
increases, in the form of sesqui-oxides, that is the hydrated indicator of soil properties, especially residual soils. This is
forms of iron and aluminium oxide (geothite and gibbsite). indicated in Figure 7, which is an altered version of Figure 6.
These tend to act as cementing agents which bring about the Soils that lie above the A-line generally show poor
formation of the hard concretions which make up laterite. A engineering properties. They are of low strength, high
warm wet climate and a long period of time is necessary for compressibility, and likely to have high shrink and swell
the weathering to advance far enough to produce laterite. potential. Those that lie below the A-line show the opposite
In the Island of Java in Indonesia, the volcanic soil seen at
the ground surface is red in colour from sea level up to an 150
elevation of about 1000m. At this level the red colour fades Poor engineering Lin
properties (clay) A-
out to be replaced by brown or yellowish clays. The soil
below 1000m is predominantly halloysite while that above Silty clay
1000m is predominantly allophane. 100 s
lay )
y c ite
Plasticity Index

Good engineering
tivit illon properties (silt)
ac or
Hi mon
50 sh so
The Casagrande plasticity chart, as incorporated into the nic a
Tropical red clays Volca llophane)
Unified Soil Classification System (USCS) is a very useful (halloysite)

chart for both sedimentary and residual soils. However, in

the author's view, it is better used as a chart for evaluating
soil properties rather than as a rigorous classification 0 50 100 150 200 250
Liquid Limit
method. This point is demonstrated in Figure 6, which shows
the position of three distinctive soil groups, namely soils Figure 7. The plasticity chart as an indicator of soil

Figure 9 Residual friction angle versus plasticity index
The important point about the plasticity chart is that it is
not the magnitude of either the liquid limit or the plasticity Figure 9 shows values of the residual friction angle (r)
index by itself that is important; it is the distance above or plotted against plasticity index. Various correlations for the
below the A-line. Figure 8 illustrates this, showing the residual friction angle have been attempted, including
position of three soils A,B and C. A and B have the same plasticity index, liquid limit and clay fraction, none of which
Plasticity Index, B and C have the same liquid limit, but the show a better correlation than that in Figure 9. Clearly there
two soils most likely to have similar properties are A and C, is no sensible correlation.
simply because they lie at the same distance above the A-
line. This is an oversimplification as there will still be an Figure 10 shows the same data plotted using the distance
influence from the increase in the liquid limit and plasticity above or below the A-line (PI) as abscissa. Also shown on
index. the same graph are values of the peak friction angle (). It is
clear that the residual values show a much better correlation
C ine than that in Figure 10, and the peak values also show a
CH l
A- reasonable correlation. The peak values are taken from
limited data in the author's own files, for both volcanic and
sedimentary soils
Plasticity Index

CL Clay 40

Silty clay
Peak average
MH or OH 30
ML or OL
Friction angle ()

0 50 100 Residual average

Liquid limit
Figure 8 Soil position in relation to the A-line (after Wesley,

The figure also shows the Casagrande (USCS) 10

classification zones which are based on plasticity index and Peak
liquid limit. In the author's view, a better classification, Residual
Below A-line Above A-line
especially for residual soils, would be that shown which
divides soils on the basis of distance above and below the A-
Distance above or below the A-line: PI = PI - 0.73(LL -20)
line. A further division could be made using the current
division at a liquid limit value of 50.
Figure 10 Data in Figure 9 re-plotted against position
relative to the A-line.
Figures 9 and 10 illustrate the advantage of using the
position on the plasticity chart rather than a single parameter
for correlations, in this case with the friction angle of clays
As pointed out in the introduction, the consolidation
Residual friction angle, r (degrees)

behaviour of residual soils is distinctly different from that of

sedimentary soils, for the simple reason that their formation
30 does not involve a consolidation process. The high
permeability of residual soils also raises difficulties in the

Clays in general
Volcanic ash clays measurement of the coefficient of consolidation in
conventional oedometer tests. These issues will be addressed
20 in the author's sister paper for the Young Geotechnical
Engineers Conference.


8.1 General Comments

Volcanic soils are a group with a very wide range of

0 20 40 60 80 100
Plasticity Index properties, as is to be expected in view of the extremely

varied nature of volcanic eruptions. The material itself can
vary from "acidic" rocks i.e. those that are high in silica Regardless of the steep angle, the slopes remain stable
content (rhyolite) to basic rocks low in silica content despite having a water table at the ground surface created by
(basalt). The process by which they are ejected and the irrigation water. As Figure 6 indicates, these soils have
deposited also varies widely from lava flows to highly widely varying Atterberg limits. Along with this variation is
explosive eruptions, and lahar flows. a wide variation in both natural water content and sensitivity.
Typical profiles of these properties are illustrated in Figure
The most distinctive volcanic soils are those mentioned 11.
earlier containing the clay minerals allophane and
immogolite. For that reason they will described in further It is worth noting that the both the natural water content
detail here. and the Atterberg limits steadily decrease as the allophane
content decreases and is replaced by halloysite. This trend is
8.2 Properties of Allophane Clays Derived From Andesitic illustrated in Figure 12
Hallosite (%)
Some of their properties have been described in 10 30 50 70 90
Parts 5 to 7 above. Their most striking property in the field
Liquid limit
is their remarkable stability on steep hill slopes, especially
Natural water content
those formed of a series of irrigated terraces on which rice

Natural water content and Atterberg limits (%)

Plastic limit
grows. These hill slopes are commonly steeper than 30
degrees and occasionally as steep as 40 degrees. 200

Water content PL and LL Su (kPa) Sensitivity

0 50 100 150 60 100 140 0 1 2 3
LL 150
Depth (m)

4 100

8 50


Water content, PL and LL Su (kPa)

0 50 100 150 200 60 100 140
w Note: The total percentage of allophane plus halloysite
5 is about 90%. The remaining 10% is made up of
coarser particles of varying composition.

10 Figure 12 Atterberg limits and natural water content in

relation to allophane content (after Wesley, 1976).
Depth (m)

The comments regarding the stability of allophane clays
on hill slopes and the test data in Figures 9 and 10 illustrate
20 the remarkably high shear strength of these clays. Both the
peak and residual friction angle are very high compared to
those that would be expected from sedimentary clays of
25 similar particle size or liquid limits.
Figure 13 illustrates their high peak shear strength and
residual strength. The peak Mohr Coulomb failure line is the
average from a number of consolidated undrained triaxial
tests, while the residual values are from ring shear tests
using the Bromhead apparatus. It is seen that the peak
Figure 11 In situ properties of allophane soils. friction angle is about 40o while the residual value is only

marginally less than this. Natural water content and 0 0.5
Liquidity Index
1 1.5 2.0 2.5 Undrained shear
Atterberg Limits (%) Sensitivity strength (kPa)
40 60 80 100 0 20 40 60 80 100 50 100 150 200

Residual strength from S1 Sand, non-plastic

ring shear tests: 8
500 o Liquid Limit
Indonesian samples 40 Plastic Limit Liquidity Index Undisturbed

= Natural water content Sensitivity Remoulded

New Zealand samples
a S2
400 20
Shear stress (kPa)

/ = 6
c S3

Elevation (m)
l te S4
300 ia
tri S5
m 4
fro S6
200 gt
tren S7

Pe 2

0 100 200 300 400 500 600

Figure 14 Results of laboratory tests on volcanic clay
Normal effective stress (kPa) derived from rhyolitic parent ash.

Figure 13 Peak and residual effective stress strength The shear strength measurements were made using a hand
parameters. shear vane. It is clear that much of the material has relatively
high sensitivity, and some thin layes have extremely high
Another very unusual property of allophane clays is that sensitivity
when dried in an oven they undergo chemical changes that
are not reversible. Very high allophane clays can be 8.4 Other Unusual Clays of Volcanic Origin
converted to non-plastic silty sands by oven drying. Some
further comments about the shear strength of residual soils, There are many clays of volcanic origin that do not belong
together with result of triaxial tests, are made in a later in the groups described above. Examples are lake deposits of
section of this paper volcanic origin. If lakes exist in the proximity of volcanoes
then it is to be expected that some volcanic material will be
8.3 Properties of Allophane Clays Derived From Rhyolitic eroded and re-deposited in lakes. This can give rise to
Ash extremely weak and compressible soils. Strictly speaking
these are no longer residual soils, though they may contain
Although the majority of clays containing a large some of the clay minerals commonly found in residual
proportion of allophane are derived from andesitic eruptions, volcanic soils. Apart from material eroded and deposited in
there are some that originate from rhyolitic eruptions. The lakes in this way, some air-borne material may be deposited
unique condition for the formation of allophane is that the directly into lakes (or into the sea). The clay underlying
parent material is non-crystalline, and this can be the case Mexico city, with its unusual characteristics and very high
with rhyolitic ash, although it may not have such a high compressibility, is an example of a clay belonging to this
proportion of non-crystalline material as is the case with group.
andesitic ash. The most significant property of allophane
clays derived from rhyolitic ash appears to be that they are Along with airborne and eroded material washed into the
less uniform and generally of high sensitivity. lake, there may also be a very unusual “soil” made up of
diatoms, often referred to as diatomaceous silt. Diatoms are
Figure 14 shows results of basic laboratory tests on tiny living organisms, somewhat like minute coral
samples taken through layers of volcanic clay derived from formations, that grow in warm silica rich streams that flow
rhyolitic ash. The layers are believed to have originated from into lakes. Figure 15 illustrates the formation of highly
a series of eruptions with substantial time intervals between compressible deposits formed in lakes in volcanic areas.
them. The sequence of eruptions is evident because some of
the layers are brown in colour and of higher strength and
lower sensitivity than the intervening layers. The brown
layers are believed to be paleosols, that is old ground
surfaces between the series of eruptions.

Airborne ash clouds resulting
in direct air fall into lake
ter table
Pe a k w a
Su n, rt
an rfac io o
dr e os sp
ive ero er tran ater table
r t sio
c r
rfa rive
Normal w r
ns n,
po S u nd Hard laye
rt a Volcanic slopes of
activity Lake surface allophane clays

(a) Shallow circular slide

(very common)
alluvial deposits
Warm silica-rich waters flowing
into the lake, resulting in
the growth of diatoms

Figure 15 Highly compressible lake deposits of volcanic (d) Deep seated circular slide
origin. (after Wesley, 2010 Har
(very unlikely)
Verdugo (2008) provides a good overview of allophone and ( c ) Large translational slide
diatomaceous soils, pointing out that although they generally (common)
exist separately from each other, their formation processes
are such that they may still occur together, and he describes
a number of situations where they are found together. Figure 16. Forms of slope failure in residual soils.
Mexico city appears to be built on a soil of this type .
9.3 Triggers and Causes of Failure
Slips and landslides in residual soils are generally triggered
9.1 General Approach to Stability Assessment by one of the following factors:
 Heavy rainfall, especially very intense rainstorms of
A dominant characteristic of residual soils is that they are relatively short duration. The actual mechanism of
more often heterogeneous than homogeneous. For this failure is a temporary increase in the pore pressure in
reason the assessment of the stability of natural slopes is not the slope. This is an important difference with
primarily an analytical exercise. Other, non-analytical sedimentary soils, where water tables tend to stay in a
methods, are likely to be an important part of any assessment permanent equilibrium position unaffected by weather.
of stability. These methods include the following:  Strong earthquakes. The predominant effect of
(a) Visual inspection of the slope earthquakes is to increase the force tending to cause
(b) Geological appraisal of the slope and surrounding failure, but it is also possible that the vibrations may
area cause the soil to soften as a result of structural collapse
(c) Inspection of aerial photos and an increase in pore pressure
(d) Inspection of existing slopes or cuttings in similar
materials to the slope in question The true cause, as distinct from the “trigger”, of a great
many landslides in residual soils is in fact human activity.
9.2 Failure Modes Excavations into slopes, the placing of fill on slopes, the
interference with natural drainage and seepage patterns, and
Residual soils are generally of higher strength than deforestation are all factors that tend to reduce stability and
sedimentary soils, and natural slopes thus tend to be possibly lead to failures, especially in urban areas.
relatively steep. For these reasons slips or landslides in
residual soils are very unlikely to have the form of deep 9.4 Geological Uncertainties.
seated circular arc failures. Their more likely forms are
illustrated in Figure 16. The most common form is (a) but Figure 17 illustrates two types of structural features
(b) and (c) are also frequently encountered. commonly found in residual soils. The first is the presence
of random discontinuities; these may arise from the
weathering process or from tectonic distortion prior to the
onset of weathering.

Planes of weakness

(a) random discontinuities (b) regular discontinuities

- indeterminate influence on stability - quantifiable influence on stability

Figure 17. Possible geological structural patterns in slopes. very dependent on the value of c, especially in small to
medium steep slopes where the stress level on any potential
Figure 17(a) shows a random pattern of discontinuities, slip surface is quite small.
making it extremely difficult to determine reliable soil
strength parameters. Figure 17(b) shows an organised Figure 19 shows some interesting data from back analysis
pattern of planes of weakness resulting from the bedding of a large number of slips or landslides in the two main
planes in a parent rock such as sandstone or claystone. In residual soils in Hong Kong, namely weathered granite and
this case it may be possible to determine the strength weathered volcanic material. Each point in the graphs has
parameters by taking an undisturbed sample and testing it at been obtained from back analysis of a single slip, and the
an appropriate orientation such that shearing occurs on the point represents the average values of effective normal stress
plane in question. and shear stress on the slip plane. The Mohr Coulomb line
In general, however, it is not often that laboratory testing has been determined from triaxial tests on undisturbed
produces a well defined Mohr Coulomb failure line. Figure samples of each soil.
18 shows results of a large number of triaxial tests on two
particular residual soils. Figure 18(a) shows results from a The data illustrates two important points. The first is that
residual soil derived from a sandstone layer. It is clear that the points are scattered quite widely on either side of the
the results are very erratic and do not provide a reasonable Mohr Coulomb line. This presumably represents variations
"best fit" Mohr Coulomb failure line. in the soil at each individual site. The second point is that the
stress level at each slip is quite small; the mean value being
about 15 to 20kPa. It is clear therefore that a number

Shear strength (kPa)

o o
4 25
400 =3  =
 kP
a o
Pa 5
Shear stress (kPa) 37

/ =
100 ,
k Pa
c =
0 200 400 600 800 1000
Normal stress (kPa)
(a) “Middle clay“. from weathered sandstone
300 o
0 50 100 150 200
/ =3
5 /

=3 Effective normal stress (kPa)
 a
a kP (a) Granite soils
Shear strength (kPa)

34 14


Each point represents

200 one slide
Shear stress (kPa)

, 
c =
0 100 200 300 400 500
Normal stress (kPa)
(b) Volcanic ash clays (allophane) 50
from Indonesia and New Zealand

Figure 18. Results of triaxial tests on two residual clays.

Figure 18(b) shows results from triaxial tests on samples 0 50 100 150 200
of allophane clays weathered from andesitic ash in Indonesia Effective normal stress (kPa)
and New Zealand. In this case the results all lie within a well
defined envelope, but the selection of the strength (b) Volcanic soils
parameters for design purposes is somewhat problematical.
The value of the friction angle  is well defined, varying by Figure 19. Results of back analysis of many slips in Hong
Kong residual soils. (after Malone and Shelton, 1982)
only one degree, but the value of c is not; it lies between
about 14kPa and 34kPa. The value of the safety factor is

9.2 Influence of Weather many, probably most residual soils, the situation is very
different. Their permeability is generally much greater than
As already indicated there is a profound difference that of sedimentary soils, which is the reason that slips occur
between slopes of residual and sedimentary soils with during or immediately after intense rainfall events. The
respect to their response to seasonal effects, in particular the comparable behaviour of residual soils is illustrated in
influence of rainfall. This difference in behaviour is Figure 21.
illustrated conceptually in Figures 20 and 21. These show
Potential failure
respectively the changes in stress, pore pressure, and safety Long term steady state surface
factor that occur with time after making a cutting in a - typical of low permeability
(sedimentary) clays
hillside consisting of sedimentary and residual clay. Figure
20 shows the conventional portrayal for a low permeability
soil, which would be the normal situation with most
sedimentary soils. In these soils, such as London clay, there P
is virtually no change in the water table with seasons or
Fluctuating water table
rainfall. Excavation of a cutting will result in an immediate - typical of many residual clays
decrease in the pore pressure in the vicinity of the cutting,
followed by a steady increase to establish the long term
value. events Seasonal

Pore pressure
Potential failure
Long term steady state surface
- typical of low permeability
(sedimentary) clays


P Sedimentary clays

Residual clays
Effective stress

End of construction
Pore pressure

Long term

Safety factor
Effective stress

End of construction

Long term

Figure 21 Pore pressure and safety factor changes following
excavation of a cutting in sedimentary clay.
Safety factor

The graph drawn here for pore pressure assumes that

behaviour during construction will be essentially undrained,
and from that point onwards it will fluctuate according to
seasonal changes and random intense storm events.
Observed behaviour of residual soil slopes indicates clearly
Time that it is sudden intense storm events that cause slope
failures rather than seasonal changes. The pore pressure
Figure 20. Pore pressure and safety factor changes with time appears to respond rapidly to intense rainfall, possibly within
following excavation of a cutting in sedimentary clay. only a few hours. Construction may well take many hours,
or possibly days, so that it is improbable that the behaviour
As the bottom graph indicates, there is s steady decline in during construction is undrained.
the safety factor as the pore pressure rises to its steady state
value. This behaviour accounts for the failure of cuttings in In using analytical methods for assessing the stability of
stiff sedimentary clays long after cuttings have been made, slopes, the challenge for geotechnical engineers, apart from
and which are not connected with rainfall events. With correctly identifying the soil conditions and measuring the

shear strength values, is thus to estimate the worst pore important point to understand regarding this method is that it
pressure state that may exist during the life of the slope. This is intended for a specific type of rock and is not a means of
issue will be addressed in the author's sister paper for the classifying or grouping particular types of residual soil.
Young Geotechnical Engineers Conference.
10.2 Methods Using Pedalogical Terms
9.3 Method of analysis
Geotechnical engineers have made use of pedological
Caution is needed in the use of conventional slope terms to designate various soil groups for many years. The
stability computer programmes with residual soils. Because term laterite or lateritic soil was one of the first such uses,
the slopes are often much steeper than those of sedimentary and goes back at least to Bee (1948). Ranganathan (1961)
soils, the usual way in which the seepage state and pore made one of the earliest uses of the term black cotton clay.
pressures are handled by the programme may result in The author (Wesley, 1974) used the terms latosol and
serious errors This issue will also be addressed in the andosol to designate two soil groups in Indonesia; this usage
author's sister paper for the Young Geotechnical Engineers was taken directly from the pedological classification system
Conference. being used at that time by Indonesian soil scientists. Lohnes
and Tuncer (1977) also used the term andosol in describing
10. CLASSIFICATION OF RESIDUAL SOILS volcanic ash soils in Hawaii.

Various attempts have been made over the years to devise Various additional terms have since been added to the
systems for the classification of residual soils. However, no geotechnical literature, and different terms are used for the
generally accepted methods have been established, and it is above groups by different countries. The terms oxisols,
unlikely that a universal scheme is either desirable or andepts and vertisols are in common use for lateritic soils
practical. Residual soils are far too diverse to fit into a tidy (latosols), andosols and black cotton soils respectively.
classification scheme. Methods that have been proposed for Mitchell and Sitar (1982) present a table showing the variety
grouping or classifying residual soils include the following: of names used by three pedological systems, namely the
French, F.A.O. and the U.S. Taxonomy. Uehara (1982) gives
(a) Methods based on the weathering profile. a useful account of the various pedological groups, and their
(b)Methods using pedalogical terms. associated properties. The three soil types mentioned above,
(c) Methods intended for local use on specific soil types namely lateritic soils, andosols and black cotton soils,
only. however, remain the three most distinctive tropical soil
(d)A method based on clay mineral type and micro- types, and appear to be the types of most interest to the
structure engineer. Table 1 summarises the various names used for
these groups.
10.1 Methods Based on the Weathering Profile

The use of degree of weathering has already been

discussed briefly above and illustrated in Figure 3(a). The
Table 1: Distinctive tropical / residual soil groups of interest to geotechnical engineers

Commonly used Rigorous Pedological Names Dominant clay Important Characteristics

Names minerals
FAO US Soil French
Lateritic soils Halloysite Very large group with
Latosols Ferralsols Oxisols Ferralitic soils Kaolinite wide variation in
Red clays Gibbsite characteristics, properties
Geothite generally good
Volcanic ash Eutropic Characterised by very high
soils Andosols Andepts brown soils of Allophane water content and
tropical and minor irreversible changes when
Andosols regions on Halloysite dried
volcanic ash
Black cotton soils Smectite Problem soils, high
Black clays Vertisols Vertisols Vertisols shrinkage and swell, low
Tropical black earths (montmorillinite) strength

The use of pedological names has not generally been done systems along the lines of those used by soil scientists. The
with the intention of establishing rigorous classification names have simply been borrowed as a convenient way of

identifying particular soil groups. Inevitably perhaps, some greywacke of Wellington, New Zealand. Wirth and Zeigler
confusion has been created by the rather unsystematic use of (1982) describe a system specifically developed for use on
these terms. the Baltimore subway project.

Andosols (allophane clays) are sometimes included in the These methods are highly desirable for dealing in a
same group as red clays and vice versa. However they are a systematic way with particular formations, but care should
distinctive group and although they may be associated with be exercised by those seeking to develop such systems, as
red clays to some extent, their composition and properties there is a danger that existing systems will merely be
are different, and for geotechnical engineering purposes they modified in some way, or correlations valid for one group of
should not be confused with red clays. Andosols also occur residual soils will be assumed to provide a basis for
in countries like Japan, Chile, and New Zealand, which are correlations within another group. For example correlations
not tropical countries, and are not associated with red claysl. between strength and void ratio may be valid for some soils
(Pender, 1980, Lohnes and Tuncer, 1977) but not for
10.3 Methods for Specific Local Use: volcanic soils with a high allophane content. Each soil type
must be evaluated on its merits.
In view of the complexity of residual soils, and the almost
total lack of any common features among some residual soil 10.4 Groups Based on Mineralogy and Structure
groups, (for example black cotton soils and weathered
granite soils) it is not surprising that descriptive or The most specific characteristics that distinguish residual
classification methods have been developed for local use in soils form sedimentary soils can be attributed either to
particular formations. Lohnes and Tuncer (1977) for unusual clay minerals, or particular structural effects such as
example, describe a system suggested for use with lateritic the presence of partially weathered rock, planes of weakness,
soils from Hawaii and Puerto Rico. Pender (1971,1980) inter-particle bonds and other such characteristics.
describes empirical correlations for the weathered

Table 2 Residual soil groups based on clay mineralogy and structure

Group Examples Properties

Major Group Sub-group
(a) Strong macro-structure Soils weathered from Behaviour governed by
GROUP A granite or soft discontinuites
Soils without a strong sedimentary rocks
mineralogical influence (b) Strong micro-structure Soils from completely Generally fairly
weathered rock homogeneous soils, but
could be highly sensitive
(c) Little or no structural Soils weathered from Homogeneous with low
influence very uniform rocks sensitivity
GROUP B (a) Smectite group "Black" clays formed in Problem soils of low
Soils strongly influenced by (montmorillonite etc) low lying areas strength and high
normal clay minerals swell/shrinkage potential
(b) Other minerals ??
GROUP C (a) Allophane sub-group Soils weathered from Very high water contents
Soils strongly influenced by volcanic ash but with surprisingly good
minerals only found in engineeringl properties
residual soils (b) Halloysite sub-group Soils often weathered Generally very fine
from volcanic material, grained soils with good
especially tropical red very good engineering
clays properties
(c) Sesquioxides: gibbsite, Laterites or some red A broad group but usually
geothite, hematite clays referred to as a hard granular material
lateritic soils
A useful first step in the grouping of residual soils is
These influences can be grouped under the general therefore to divide them into groups on the basis of
headings of composition and structure. Composition composition alone, without reference to their undisturbed
includes particle size, shape, and especially mineralogical state. Such a grouping system is described by Wesley (1988)
composition, while structure includes both macro-structure and Wesley and Irfan (1997), and is summarised in Table 2.
and micro-structure, as discussed earlier. The following three groups are suggested:

Group A: Soils without a strong mineralogical influence
Information in the literature suggests that not many other
Group B: Soils with a strong mineralogical influence
residual soils belong to this group, although there are some
coming from conventional clay minerals commonly
soils derived from soft sedimentary rocks that have
found in sedimentary soils.
properties which are fairly strongly influenced by the
Group C: Soils with a strong mineralogical influence presence of montmorillonite.
coming from special clay minerals not found in
sedimentary soils. Group C: Residual soils strongly influenced by special clay
minerals not found in sedimentary soils.
Brief comments on the groups are as follows.
Group A: Residual soils without a strong mineralogical The two most important minerals involved here are the
influence silicate clay minerals halloysite and allophone, described
earlier, and the associated minerals known as sesquioxides.
By eliminating those soils which are strongly influenced It is convenient r to subdivide this group into three sub-
by particular clay minerals, there is some possibility of groups:
identifying a group of soils which can be expected to have
similar properties. In general, soils which have a weathering (a) Halloysite Soils
profile of the type illustrated in Fig. 3(a) will come within
this group. Weathered granite soils are a typical example – The principal influence of halloysite appears to be that the
they are generally of a fairly coarse nature, with a relatively engineering properties of the soil are good, despite a high
low clay fraction. In rare instances, the top layer (the soil clay fraction and very small particle size, and fairly high
layer) may be sufficiently advanced in weathering to become values of natural water content and Atterberg limits. The
a true clay with properties strongly influenced by distinctive good engineering properties appear to be the direct result of
clay minerals. their mineralogical composition.
Group A soils can be subdivided further on the basis of (b) Allophane Soils
the extent and manner in which their behaviour is influenced
by structural effects. It is convenient to separate structural The properties of allophone have already been described.
effects into the two broad groups of macro-structure and It should be understood however that the influence of
micro-structure. On this basis Group A can therefore be allophane is both dramatic and puzzling, in that it results in
divided into two main sub-groups: soils having water contents ranging from about 80% to
250%, but which still perform very satisfactorily as
Sub-group (a): These are soils in which macro- engineering materials..
structure plays an important role in the
engineering behaviour of the soil. Sup-group (b): (c) Soils Influenced by Sesquioxides
These are soils without macro-structure, but with
a strong influence from micro-structure. The The principal role of the sesquioxides appears to be as
most important form of micro-structure is inter- cementing agents that bind the other mineral constituents
particle bonding or cementation, and although into clusters or aggregations. With sufficient concentration
this cannot be identified by visual inspection it of sesquioxides, the hard concretionary materials commonly
can be inferred from fairly basic aspects of soil known as laterite are formed. The silica/alumina ratio
behaviour, especially sensitivity. . (SiO2/A12O3) and the silica/sesquioxide ratio have both been
Sub-group (c): Soils that are not greatly used as indicators of degree of laterisation. This sub-group
influenced by macro or micro-structural effects could perhaps be termed the lateritic group, but the term
are included here as a third sub-group. This is a laterite is generally used very loosely, sometimes to include
very minor group, as very few residual soils of
both halloysite and allophane clays - whose behaviour is not
Group A fall into this category. significantly influenced by the sesquioxides. The above
groups, especially the halloysite and allophane groups, can
Group B: Residual soils strongly influenced by conventional be further subdivided on the basis of structure, as indicated
clay minerals. in Table 2.
This group is made up of soils that are strongly influenced 11 CONCLUSIONS
by conventional clay minerals such as those normally found
in sedimentary soils. The most significant member of this This paper has given an account of the most distinctive
group is the black cotton soil goup or “vertisols”, whose
characteristics of tropical residual soils as experienced by the
characteristic properties are high shrink and swell potential,
author. This experience has been primarily through working
high compressibility and low strength. These characteristics in the wet tropics in Indonesia and Malaysia. It is inevitable
are directly related to their predominant mineralogical that other geotechnical engineers working in a different
constituent, which is montmorillonite or similar minerals of environment may highlight other distinctive characteristics
the smectite group. not covered in this paper. Perhaps the most important lesson

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