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?
Landslides have three major causes: geology, morphology, and human activity.
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.