Simple Scaling of Catastrophic Landslide Dynamics

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Science  22 Mar 2013:
Vol. 339, Issue 6126, pp. 1416-1419
DOI: 10.1126/science.1232887

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Bringing Down Landslides

Measuring landslide mechanics remotely, like seismic networks are used to quantify and locate earthquakes, would provide valuable information to understand these often catastrophic and costly natural hazards. Ekström and Stark (p. 1416; see the Perspective by Petley) analyzed global seismic network data using a method that identifies long-period events not recorded by traditional monitoring networks. The global seismic network was able to record landslide events and quantify dynamic properties—including duration, total mass, and direction of debris flow. The analysis located and quantified a series of seven previously undocumented massive landslides associated with the Siachen Glacier in the Himalayas.


Catastrophic landslides involve the acceleration and deceleration of millions of tons of rock and debris in response to the forces of gravity and dissipation. Their unpredictability and frequent location in remote areas have made observations of their dynamics rare. Through real-time detection and inverse modeling of teleseismic data, we show that landslide dynamics are primarily determined by the length scale of the source mass. When combined with geometric constraints from satellite imagery, the seismically determined landslide force histories yield estimates of landslide duration, momenta, potential energy loss, mass, and runout trajectory. Measurements of these dynamical properties for 29 teleseismogenic landslides are consistent with a simple acceleration model in which height drop and rupture depth scale with the length of the failing slope.

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