landslide, rapid slipping of a mass of earth or rock from a higher elevation to a lower level under the influence of gravity and water lubrication. More specifically, rockslides are the rapid downhill movement of large masses of rock with little or no hydraulic flow, similar to an avalanche. Water-saturated soil or clay on a slope may slide downhill over a period of several hours. Earthflows of this type are usually not serious threats to life because of their slow movement, yet they can cause blockage of roads and do extensive damage to property. Mudflows are more spectacular streams of mud that pour down canyons in mountainous regions during major rainstorms where there is little vegetation to protect hillsides from erosion. The runoff from the storm and mud becomes a thin slurry that funnels down the canyons until it thickens and stops. Earthquakes also may cause landslides by shaking unconsolidated or weathered material from slopes. Rockslides triggered by an earthquake in Montana in 1959 caused an entire mountainside to slide into the Madison River gorge, killing 27 people in its path, damming the gorge, and forming a new lake. Humans have triggered a number of tragic landslides that have caused great damage and loss of life. In the Los Angeles area of California, extensive real estate development carried out on hillsides has resulted in widespread mudflows after winter rains have saturated the over-steepened embankments of soil. In some areas, slow-moving earthflows have been initiated by the lubrication of certain types of underlying clays by septic tank effluent. Submarine slides, or a sliding mix of seawater and sediment, are called turbidity currents. Undersea landslides can travel several hundred miles across very gradual slopes, riding on a thin film of water that reduces friction.
The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.