A landslide is the movement of rock, earth, or debris down a sloped section of land.


6 - 12+


Earth Science, Geology, Geography, Human Geography, Physical Geography

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Morgan Stanley

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 Earth, sometimes describe landslides as one type of mass wasting. A mass wasting is any downward movement in which 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 strength 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 U.S. 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 (1,000 feet) wide, 61 meters (200 feet) thick, and 1.6 kilometers (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.

Landslide Movement

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.

Landslide Material

A landslide can involve rock, soil, vegetation, water, or some combination of all these. A landslide caused by a volcano can also contain hot volcanic ash and lava from the eruption. A landslide high in the mountains may have snow and snowmelt. Volcanic landslides, also called lahars, are among the most devastating type of landslides. The largest landslide in recorded history took place after the 1980 eruption of Mount St. Helens in the U.S. state of Washington. The resulting flow of ash, rock, soil, vegetation and water, with a volume of about 2.9 cubic kilometers (0.7 cubic miles), covered an area of 62 square kilometers (24 square miles).

Other Factors

Another factor that might be important for describing landslides is the speed of the movement. Some landslides move at many meters per second, while others creep along at an centimeter or two a year. The amount of water, ice, or air in the earth should also be considered. Some landslides include toxic gases from deep in Earth expelled by volcanoes. Some landslides, called mudslides, contain a high amount of water and move very quickly. Complex landslides consist of a combination of different material or movement types.

Fast Fact

Martian Landslide
In December 2008, scientists announced that they had found evidence of the largest landslide ever. Because of a giant asteroid impact billions of years ago, the smooth northern hemisphere of Mars is sharply separated from the irregular southern highlands. Arabia Terra, a previously unexplained plateau between the two regions, is thought to have been formed by an enormous landslide immediately after the impact. The land mass that slid north to form Arabia Terra was the size of the entire United States!

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Kim Rutledge
Melissa McDaniel
Santani Teng
Hilary Hall
Tara Ramroop
Erin Sprout
Jeff Hunt
Diane Boudreau
Hilary Costa
Mary Crooks, National Geographic Society
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Kara West
Educator Reviewer
Nancy Wynne
National Geographic Society
Last Updated

April 26, 2024

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