A landslide is the movement of rock, earth, or debris down a sloped section of land. Landslides are caused by rain, earthquakes, volcanoes, or other factors that make the slope unstable.
Geologists, scientists who study the physical formations of the Earth, sometimes describe landslides as one type of mass wasting. A mass wasting is any downward movement in which the Earth's surface is worn away. Other types of mass wasting include rockfalls and the flow of shore deposits called alluvium.
Near populated areas, landslides present major hazards to people and property. Landslides cause an estimated 25 to 50 deaths and $3.5 billion in damage each year in the United States.
What Causes Landslides?
Geology refers to characteristics of the material itself. The earth or rock might be weak or fractured, or different layers may have different strengths and stiffness.
Morphology refers to the structure of the land. For example, slopes that lose their vegetation to fire or drought are more vulnerable to landslides. Vegetation holds soil in place, and without the root systems of trees, bushes, and other plants, the land is more likely to slide away.
A classic morphological cause of landslides is erosion, or weakening of earth due to water. In April 1983, the town of Thistle, Utah, experienced a devastating landslide brought on by heavy rains and rapidly melting snow. A mass of earth eventually totaling 305 meters wide, 61 meters thick, and 1.6 kilometers long (1,000 feet wide, 200 feet thick, and one mile long) slid across the nearby Spanish Fork River, damming it and severing railroad and highway lines. The landslide was the costliest in U.S. history, causing over $400 million in damage and destroying Thistle, which remains an evacuated ghost town today.
Human activity, such as agriculture and construction, can increase the risk of a landslide. Irrigation, deforestation, excavation, and water leakage are some of the common activities that can help destabilize, or weaken, a slope.
Types of Landslides
There are many ways to describe a landslide. The nature of a landslide's movement and the type of material involved are two of the most common.
There are several ways of describing how a landslide moves. These include falls, topples, translational slides, lateral spreads, and flows.
In falls and topples, heavy blocks of material fall after separating from a very steep slope or cliff. Boulders tumbling down a slope would be a fall or topple.
In translational slides, surface material is separated from the more stable underlying layer of a slope. An earthquake may shake the loosen top layer of soil from the harder earth beneath in this type of landslide.
A lateral spread or flow is the movement of material sideways, or laterally. This happens when a powerful force, such as an earthquake, makes the ground move quickly, like a liquid.
A landslide can involve rock, soil, vegetation, water, or some combination of all these. A landslide caused by a volcano can also contain hot volcanic ash and lava from the eruption. A landslide high in the mountains may have snow and snowmelt.
Volcanic landslides, also called lahars, are among the most devastating type of landslides. The largest landslide in recorded history took place after the 1980 eruption of Mount St. Helens in the U.S. state of Washington. The resulting flow of ash, rock, soil, vegetation and water, with a volume of about 2.9 cubic kilometers (0.7 cubic miles), covered an area of 62 square kilometers (24 square miles).
Another factor that might be important for describing landslides is the speed of the movement. Some landslides move at many meters per second, while others creep along at an centimeter or two a year. The amount of water, ice, or air in the earth should also be considered. Some landslides include toxic gases from deep in the Earth expelled by volcanoes. Some landslides, called mudslides, contain a high amount of water and move very quickly. Complex landslides consist of a combination of different material or movement types.
In December 2008, scientists announced that they had found evidence of the largest landslide ever. Because of a giant asteroid impact billions of years ago, the smooth northern hemisphere of Mars is sharply separated from the irregular southern highlands. Arabia Terra, a previously unexplained plateau between the two regions, is thought to have been formed by an enormous landslide immediately after the impact. The land mass that slid north to form Arabia Terra was the size of the entire United States!
the art and science of cultivating land for growing crops (farming) or raising livestock (ranching).
gravel, sand, and smaller materials deposited by flowing water.
low-lying plant with many branches.
physical, cultural, or psychological feature of an organism, place, or object.
arrangement of different parts.
expensive or having a lot of value.
to move slowly and close to the ground.
to block a flow of water.
remains of something broken or destroyed; waste, or garbage.
destruction or removal of forests and their undergrowth.
to ruin or make useless.
period of greatly reduced precipitation.
soil or dirt.
the sudden shaking of Earth's crust caused by the release of energy along fault lines or from volcanic activity.
act in which earth is worn away, often by water, wind, or ice.
release of material from an opening in the Earth's crust.
to guess based on knowledge of the situation or object.
to leave or remove from a dangerous place.
area that has been dug up or exposed for study.
to eject or force out.
movement of pieces of rock or soil downward in a landslide.
a chemical process that releases heat and light due to burning.
quick movement of material in a landslide, as if it were liquid.
state of matter with no fixed shape that will fill any container uniformly. Gas molecules are in constant, random motion.
person who studies the physical formations of the Earth.
study of the physical history of the Earth, its composition, its structure, and the processes that form and change it.
urban area that has been abandoned by all residents.
danger or risk.
large public road.
water in its solid form.
watering land, usually for agriculture, by artificial means.
flow of mud and other wet material from a volcano.
the fall of rocks, soil, and other materials from a mountain, hill, or slope.
movement of material sideways during a landslide.
molten rock, or magma, that erupts from volcanoes or fissures in the Earth's surface.
downward movement of rock, soil, and other material.
study of the form and structure of organisms or materials.
rapid, downhill flow of soil and water. Also called a mudflow.
organism that produces its own food through photosynthesis and whose cells have walls.
road constructed with metal tracks on which trains travel.
natural substance composed of solid mineral matter.
sudden descent of large rocks.
all of a plant's roots.
structure or diagram of the way information is studied, documented, and understood.
to separate or cut away.
slant, either upward or downward, from a straight or flat path.
precipitation made of ice crystals.
water supplied by snow.
movement of smaller pieces of rock or soil downward in a landslide.
movement of all surface material (including rocks, soil, and vegetation) downward during a landslide.
type of large plant with a thick trunk and branches.
unsteady or likely to fall apart.
all the plant life of a specific place.
fragments of lava less than 2 millimeters across.
an opening in the Earth's crust, through which lava, ash, and gases erupt, and also the cone built by eruptions.
capable of being hurt.