Landslides occur in all 50 states and territories and they affect lives, property, infrastructure, and the environment. Understanding when, where, and how landslides occur can help to reduce the risk of living with these natural hazards.
What is a Landslide?
The term landslide includes a wide range of ground movements, such as rock falls, deep failure of slopes, and shallow debris flows. Although gravity acting on an over-steepened slope is the primary reason for a landslide, there are other contributing factors:
- erosion by rivers, glaciers, or ocean waves create oversteepened slopes
- rock and soil slopes are weakened through saturation by snowmelt or heavy rains
- earthquakes create stresses that make weak slopes fail
- earthquakes of magnitude 4.0 and greater have been known to trigger landslides
- volcanic eruptions produce loose ash deposits, heavy rain, and debris flows
- excess weight from the accumulation of rain or snow, stockpiling of rock or ore, from waste piles, or from man-made structures may stress weak slopes to failure and other structures
Slope material that becomes saturated with water may develop a debris flow or mud flow. The resulting slurry of rock and mud may pick up trees, houses, and cars, thus blocking bridges and tributaries causing flooding along its path.
Where do Landslides Occur?
Landslides occur in every state and U.S. territory. The Appalachian Mountains, the Rocky Mountains and the Pacific Coastal Ranges and some parts of Alaska and Hawaii have severe landslide problems. Any area composed of very weak or fractured materials resting on a steep slope can and will likely experience landslides.
Although the physical cause of many landslides cannot be removed, geologic investigations, good engineering practices, and effective enforcement of land-use management regulations can reduce landslide hazards.
USGS scientists continue to produce landslide susceptibility maps for many areas in the United States. In every state, USGS scientists monitor streamflow, noting changes in sediment load carried by rivers and streams that may result from landslides. Hydrologists with expertise in debris and mudflows are studying these hazards in volcanic regions.
Why Study Landslides?
Landslides are a serious geologic hazard common to almost every State in the United States. It is estimated that in the United States, they cause in excess of $1 billion in damages and from about 25 to 50 deaths each year. Globally, landslides cause many billions in damages and thousands of deaths each year.
- A Homeowner's Guide to Landslides for Washington and Oregon - Washington Department of Natural Resources and the Oregon Department of Geology and Mineral Industries
Puerto Rico Landslide Hazard Mitigation Project - Educational and preparedness resources in Spanish and English
What is a Debris Flow?
Debris flows, sometimes referred to as mudslides, mudflows, lahars, or debris avalanches, are common types of fast-moving landslides. These flows generally occur during periods of intense rainfall or rapid snowmelt. They usually start on steep hillsides as shallow landslides that liquefy and accelerate to speeds that are typically about 10 mph, but can exceed 35 mph. The consistency of debris flows ranges from watery mud to thick, rocky mud that can carry large items such as boulders, trees, and cars. They are among the most numerous and dangerous types of landslides in the world. They are particularly dangerous to life and property because of their high speeds and the sheer destructive force of their flow.
Vegetation and soil changes after a fire increase the runoff and erosion in a watershed, and significantly increase the likelihood of debris flows and flash flooding. Flash flooding and debris flows can initiate during even moderate rainstorms over burn areas and often occur with very little warning. Post-fire flow can alternate between flood and debris flow. Debris flows are more dangerous and more destructive and dangerous than floods because:
- 10-50 times greater peak discharge
- flow height up to 5 times greater
- flow velocity same or greater
- greater than 50% sediment content
- coarse-grained surge fronts
Distinguishing between debris flow and flood deposits can be difficult, but certain sedimentary structures and textures can give clues to the mechanism of deposition. The following provides more details on the differences.
|Grain size||Clay to boulder, greater 50% of sediment is sand-size or greater||Clay to boulder|
|Sorting||Extremely poor||Moderate to good|
|Grain shape||Angular to subangular||Round to subround|
|Texture||No bedding, normal or inverse grading is common, matrix-supported||Distinct planar to cross-laminated beds and laminae voides are common between larger clasts|
|Sedimentary structures||Levees, terminal lobes, fans, coarse clasts on surface, sandy mud coatings on boulders, logs, banks||Dunes, ripples, and longitudinal bars are common, imbricated gravel clasts|
|Sediment load||40-50% sediment by volume, greater than 50% of sediment load is sand-size or larger, sediment load controls flow behavior||5-10% sediment by volume, water controls flow behavior|
Grain Size and Sorting
Debris flows are capable of transporting material or grains that range from very fine mud- or clay-size particles to boulders that are as large as cars. This wide variation in grain size results in accumulations or deposits of material at the outlet of a drainage basin that are poorly sorted, or in other words, all mixed up together.
Levees, or ridges of coarse cobbles, boulders and even tree trunks, often line channels that debris flows have passed through. Levees in the images to the right contain pebble to boulder-sized rocks and a tree trunk that has been stripped of its branches and is aligned parallel to the axis of the channel.
As debris flows move from steep, mountainous terrain to gently sloping or flat terrain, they slow down considerably, causing sediment to settle out and form fan-shaped deposits. Alluvial fans formed by debris flow are also poorly sorted and lack any kind of layering or stratification.
Below are publications associated with this project.
The Landslide Handbook - A Guide to Understanding Landslides
Debris flow hazards mitigation--Mechanics, prediction, and assessment
Distinguishing between debris flows and floods from field evidence in small watersheds
Debris-flow hazards in the United States
Below are publications associated with this project.
The Landslide Handbook - A Guide to Understanding LandslidesThis handbook is intended to be a resource for people affected by landslides to acquire further knowledge, especially about the conditions that are unique to their neighborhoods and communities. Considerable literature and research are available concerning landslides, but unfortunately little of it is synthesized and integrated to address the geographically unique geologic and climatic conditionsAuthorsLynn M. Highland, Peter Bobrowsky
Debris flow hazards mitigation--Mechanics, prediction, and assessmentThese proceedings contain papers presented at the Fourth International Conference on Debris-Flow Hazards Mitigation: Mechanics, Prediction, and Assessment held in Chengdu, China, September 10-13, 2007. The papers cover a wide range of topics on debris-flow science and engineering, including the factors triggering debris flows, geomorphic effects, mechanics of debris flows (e.g., rheology, fluv
Distinguishing between debris flows and floods from field evidence in small watershedsPost-flood indirect measurement techniques to back-calculate flood magnitude are not valid for debris flows, which commonly occur in small steep watersheds during intense rainstorms. This is because debris flows can move much faster than floods in steep channel reaches and much slower than floods in low-gradient reaches. In addition, debris-flow deposition may drastically alter channel geometry inAuthorsThomas C. Pierson
Debris-flow hazards in the United StatesNo abstract available.AuthorsLynn Highland, Stephenson D. Ellen, Sarah B. Christian, William M. Brown