Types of Mass Movement

Identify and describe types of mass movement.

In this section, you will learn the term mass wasting. You will also be exposed to the various types of mass wasting, their causes and their effects.

What You’ll Learn to Do

  • Describe slides as a type of mass movement
  • Describe falls as a type of mass movement
  • Describe slumps as a type of mass movement
  • Describe creep as a type of mass movement

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.

Landslides

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 2. 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 3). 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 3. (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 4).

Lituya Bay

Figure 4. 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.

Falls

Green hills with white streaks

Figure 5. The white areas on green hillsides mark scars from numerous mudflows.

Falls are abrupt movements of masses of geologic materials, such as rocks and boulders, that become detached from steep slopes or cliffs. Separation occurs along discontinuities such as fractures, joints, and bedding planes, and movement occurs by free-fall, bouncing, and rolling. Falls are strongly influenced by gravity, mechanical weathering, and the presence of interstitial water.

Lahars and Mudflow

Added water creates natural hazards produced by gravity (figure 5). On hillsides with soils rich in clay, little rain, and not much vegetation to hold the soil in place, a time of high precipitation will create a mudflow. Mudflows follow river channels, washing out bridges, trees, and homes that are in their path.

A lahar is mudflow that flows down a composite volcano (figure 6). Ash mixes with snow and ice melted by the eruption to produce hot, fast-moving flows. The lahar caused by the eruption of Nevado del Ruiz in Columbia in 1985 killed more than 23,000 people.

An erupted volcano with a lava stream flowing down

Figure 6. A lahar is a mudflow that forms from volcanic ash and debris.

Slump and Creep

Less dramatic types of downslope movement move earth materials slowly down a hillside. Slump moves materials as a large block along a curved surface (figure 7). Slumps often happen when a slope is undercut, with no support for the overlying materials, or when too much weight is added to an unstable slope.

A crescent-shaped beach surrounded by tall hills

Figure 7. Slump material moves as a whole unit, leaving behind a crescent shaped scar.

Trees with curved trunks

Figure 8. Trees with curved trunks are often signs that the hillside is slowly creeping downhill.

Creep is the imperceptibly slow, steady, downward movement of slope-forming soil or rock. Movement is caused by shear stress sufficient to produce permanent deformation, but too small to produce shear failure. There are generally three types of creep:

  1. Seasonal, where movement is within the depth of soil affected by seasonal changes in soil moisture and soil temperature
  2. Continuous, where shear stress continuously exceeds the strength of the material
  3. Progressive, where slopes are reaching the point of failure as other types of mass movements. Creep is indicated by curved tree trunks, bent fences or retaining walls, tilted poles or fences, and small soil ripples or ridges

Curves in tree trunks indicate creep because the base of the tree is moving downslope while the top is trying to grow straight up (figure 8). Tilted telephone or power company poles are also signs of creep.

Check Your Understanding

Answer the question(s) below to see how well you understand the topics covered in the previous section. This short quiz does not count toward your grade in the class, and you can retake it an unlimited number of times.

Use this quiz to check your understanding and decide whether to (1) study the previous section further or (2) move on to the next section.