What is a Landslide?

Severe damage to road caused by landslide

Severe damage to road caused
by landslide

A landslide is the movement of rock, debris or earth down a slope. They result from the failure of the materials which make up the hill slope and are driven by the force of gravity. Landslides are known also as landslips, slumps or slope failure.

Some of the most common types of landslide in Australia are earth slides, rock falls and debris flows. The movement of landslide material can vary from abrupt collapses to slow gradual slides and at rates which range from almost undetectable to extremely rapid. Sudden and rapid events are the most dangerous because of a lack of warning and the speed at which material can travel down the slope as well as the force of its resulting impact. Extremely slow landslides might move only millimetres or centimetres a year and can be active over many years. Although this type of landslide is not a threat to people they can cause considerable damage to property.

Landslides can be triggered by natural causes or by human activity. They range from a single boulder in a rock fall or topple to tens of millions of cubic metres of material in a debris flow.

They can also vary in their extent, with some occurring very locally and impacting a very small area or hill slope while others affect much larger regional areas. The distance travelled by landslide material can also differ significantly with slides travelling from a few centimetres to many kilometres depending on the volume of material, water content and gradient of the slope.

Landslides in Australia have caused fatalities, environmental degradation and millions of dollars damage to buildings, roads, railways, pipelines, communication networks and agricultural land.

Since 1842, there have been 100 recorded landslide events which have resulted in the death of 105 people and injury to 129 (National Landslide Database, 2007). Although many of these landslides have resulted from natural phenomenon, almost half of those causing death and injury can be attributed to human activity. The basic types of landslide movement are:

Fall

This is generally characterised by a rapid to extremely rapid rate of movement with the descent of material characterised by a freefall period. Falls are commonly triggered by earthquakes or erosion processes.

Topple

This is characterised by the tilting of rock without collapse, or by the forward rotation of rocks about a pivot point. Topples have a rapid rate of movement and failure is generally influenced by the fracture pattern in rock. Material descends by abrupt falling, sliding, bouncing and rolling.

Flow

This is the most destructive and turbulent form of landslide. Flows have a high water content which causes the slope material to lose cohesion, turning it into a slurry. They are channelled by the landscape and move rapidly.

Slide

This is one of the most common forms of failure and can be subdivided into translational and rotational slides. Rotational slides are sometimes called slumps because they move with rotation. Translational slides have a planar, or two dimensional surface of rupture. Slides are most common when the toe of the slope is undercut. They have a moderate rate of movement and the coherence of material is retained, moving largely intact or in broken pieces.

Spread

This phenomenon is characterised by the gradual lateral displacement of large volumes of distributed material over very gentle or flat terrain. Failure is caused by liquefaction which is the process when saturated loose sediment with little or no cohesion such as sands or silts are transformed into a liquid-like state. This process is triggered by rapid ground motion most commonly during earthquakes.