Reading: Slides

Mount Rushmore with a large talus slope beneath it.

Figure 1. Pieces of rock regularly fall to the base of cliffs to form talus slopes.

Rocks that fall to the base of a cliff make a talus slope (figure 1). Sometimes as one rock falls, it hits another rock, which hits another rock, and begins a landslide.

Landslides and avalanches are the most dramatic, sudden, and dangerous examples of earth materials moved by gravity. Landslides are sudden falls of rock, whereas avalanches are sudden falls of snow.


Although many types of mass movements are included in the general term “landslide,” the more restrictive use of the term refers only to mass movements, where there is a distinct zone of weakness that separates the slide material from more stable underlying material. The two major types of slides are rotational slides and translational slides. Rotational slide: This is a slide in which the surface of rupture is curved concavely upward and the slide movement is roughly rotational about an axis that is parallel to the ground surface and transverse across the slide (figure 2a). Translational slide: In this type of slide, the landslide mass moves along a roughly planar surface with little rotation or backward tilting (figure 2b). A block slide is a translational slide in which the moving mass consists of a single unit or a few closely related units that move downslope as a relatively coherent mass (figure 2c).

These schematics illustrate the major types of landslide movement.

Figure 1. These schematics illustrate the major types of landslide movement.

When large amounts of rock suddenly break loose from a cliff or mountainside, they move quickly and with tremendous force (figure 2). Air trapped under the falling rocks acts as a cushion that keeps the rock from slowing down. Landslides and avalanches can move as fast as 200 to 300 km/hour.

A) landslide B) avalanche

Figure 2. (a) Landslides are called rock slides by geologists. (b) A snow avalanche moves quickly down slope, burying everything in its path.

Landslides are exceptionally destructive. Homes may be destroyed as hillsides collapse. Landslides can even bury entire villages. Landslides may create lakes when the rocky material dams a stream. If a landslide flows into a lake or bay, they can trigger a tsunami (figure 3).

Lituya Bay

Figure 3. The 1958 landslide into Lituya Bay, Alaska, created a 524m tsunami that knocked down trees at elevations higher than the Empire State Building (light gray).

Landslides often occur on steep slopes in dry or semi-arid climates. The California coastline, with its steep cliffs and years of drought punctuated by seasons of abundant rainfall, is prone to landslides. At-risk communities have developed landslide warning systems. Around San Francisco Bay, the National Weather Service and the U.S. Geological Survey use rain gauges to monitor soil moisture. If soil becomes saturated, the weather service issues a warning. Earthquakes, which may occur on California’s abundant faults, can also trigger landslides.

KQED: Landslide Detectives

Hillside properties in the San Francisco Bay Area and elsewhere may be prone to damage from landslides. Geologists are studying the warning signs and progress of local landslides to help reduce risks and give people adequate warnings of these looming threats. You can learn more here.


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