What is a Landslide?

landslide sketch

The term landslide includes a wide range of ground movement, 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:

Slope material that become 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 mud flows are studying these hazards in volcanic regions.

Why Study Landslides?

landslide on edge of slope with a building at the top

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.