Submarine landslides


  • Monty A. Hampton,

  • Homa J. Lee,

  • Jacques Locat


Landslides are common on inclined areas of the seafloor, particularly in environments where weak geologic materials such as rapidly deposited, fine-grained sediment or fractured rock are subjected to strong environmental stresses such as earthquakes, large storm waves, and high internal pore pressures. Submarine landslides can involve huge amounts of material and can move great distances: slide volumes as large as 20,000 km³ and runout distances in excess of 140 km have been reported. They occur at locations where the downslope component of stress exceeds the resisting stress, causing movement along one or several concave to planar rupture surfaces. Some recent slides that originated nearshore and retrogressed back across the shoreline were conspicuous by their direct impact on human life and activities. Most known slides, however, occurred far from land in prehistoric time and were discovered by noting distinct to subtle characteristics, such as headwall scarps and displaced sediment or rock masses, on acoustic-reflection profiles and side-scan sonar images. Submarine landslides can be analyzed using the same mechanics principles as are used for occurrences on land. However, some loading mechanisms are unique, for example, storm waves, and some, such as earthquakes, can have greater impact. The potential for limited-deformation landslides to transform into sediment flows that can travel exceedingly long distances is related to the density of the slope-forming material and the amount of shear strength that is lost when the slope fails.