Landslide

In the early hours of August 2, 2014, nearly 2 kilometers of hillside collapsed in rugged northern Nepal. Image: NASA.

Definition

The term “landslide” refers to a variety of processes that result in the downward and outward movement of slope-forming materials, including rock, soil, artificial fill, or a combination of these. The materials may move by falling, toppling, sliding, spreading, or flowing (UNDRR).

A landslide is a downslope movement of rock or soil, or both, occurring on the surface of rupture, either curved (rotational slide) or planar (translational slide) rupture, in which much of the material often moves as a coherent or semi coherent mass with little internal deformation (USGS).

Facts and figures

According to the International Disaster Database of the Centre for Research on the Epidemiology of Disasters, in the period from 2000 to 2014, 26,000 persons have lost their lives because of landslides and flash floods while the economic losses amounted to over US$ 40 billion (OFDA/CRED).

Landslides can be classified into different types on the basis of the type of movement and the type of material involved. In brief, material in a landslide mass is either rock or soil (or both); the latter is described as earth if mainly composed of sand-sized or finer particles and debris if composed of coarse fragments. The type of movement describes the actual internal mechanics of how the landslide mass is displaced: fall, topple, slide, spread, or flow. Thus, landslides are described using two terms that refer respectively to material and movement, that is rockfall, debris flow, and so forth. Landslides may also form a complex failure encompassing more than one type of movement that is, rock slide and debris flow (USGS).

The primary driving factor of landslides is gravity acting on a portion of a slope that is out of equilibrium. The following are some of the major landslide triggering mechanisms:

  • River erosions, glaciers, or ocean waves
  • Weakening of rock and soil slope properties through water saturation by snowmelt or heavy rains
  • Stresses, strains and excess of pore pressures induced by the inertial forces during an earthquake (earthquakes of magnitude greater than or equal to 4.0 can trigger landslides)
  • Volcanic eruptions with the production of loose ash deposits that may become debris flows (known as lahars) during heavy rains
  • Stockpiling of rock or ore, from waste piles, or from man-made structures
  • Changes of the natural topography caused by human activity (UNDRR).

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