What is a landslide and what causes one?

A landslide is defined as "the movement of a mass of rock, debris, or earth down a slope" (Cruden, 1991). Landslides are a type of "mass wasting," which denotes any down-slope movement of soil and rock under the direct influence of gravity. The term "landslide" encompasses five modes of slope movement: falls, topples, slides, spreads, and flows. These are further subdivided by the type of geologic material (bedrock, debris, or earth). Debris flows (commonly referred to as mudflows or mudslides) and rock falls are examples of common landslide types (Cruden and Varnes, 1996).


Almost every landslide has multiple causes. Slope movement occurs when forces acting down-slope (mainly due to gravity) exceed the strength of the earth materials that compose the slope. Causes include factors that increase the effects of down-slope forces and factors that contribute to low or reduced strength. Landslides can be initiated in slopes already on the verge of movement by rainfall, snowmelt, changes in water level, stream erosion, changes in ground water, earthquakes, volcanic activity, disturbance by human activities, or any combination of these factors. Earthquake shaking and other factors can also induce landslides underwater. These landslides are called submarine landslides. Submarine landslides sometimes cause tsunamis that damage coastal areas. 


Landslides can move slowly, (millimeters per year) or can move quickly and disastrously, as is the case with debris flows. Debris flows can travel down a hillside at speeds up to 200 miles per hour (more commonly, 30 - 50 miles per hour), depending on the slope angle, water content, volume of debris, and type of earth and debris in the flow. These flows are initiated by heavy, usually sustained, periods of rainfall, but sometimes can happen as a result of short bursts of concentrated rainfall or other factors in susceptible areas. Burned areas charred by wildfires are particularly susceptible to debris flows, given certain soil characteristics and slope conditions.


Sources of Information:  

Cruden, D.M., 1991, A Simple Definition of a Landslide. Bulletin of the International Association of Engineering Geology, No. 43, pp. 27-29.

Cruden, D.M., and Varnes, D.J., 1996, Landslide Types and Processes, in Turner, A. K., and R.L. Schuster, Landslides: Investigation and Mitigation, Transportation Research Board Special Report 247, National Research Council, Washington, D.C.: National Academy Press.


Learn more:

Landslide Hazard Program

Landslide Types and Processes

Recent USGS Landslide Publications