Landslides and multiple dangers

English: A rock landslide in Guerrero, Mexico....

A landslide in Guerrero, Mexico in August, 1989. (credit: Wikipedia)

Just as modern humans were establishing a permanent foothold in Britain and engaging in the transition to settled farming and livestock husbandry disaster struck some of the most attractive Mesolithic real estate. Around 8 000 years ago the east coast of Scotland, from the Shetland Isles to the Firth of Forth, was struck by a tsunami as big as that affecting the north eastern island of Honshu in the Japan archipelago in 2011. It washed over low lying islands of Shetland and Orkney and roiled up the great inlets or firths of eastern mainland Scotland to leave thick sand deposits containing carcases of whales and other large sea mammals. At that time, Britain was joined to the rest of Europe by marshy lowlands linking East Anglia and the Netherlands dubbed ‘Doggerland’ at the southern end of a huge gulf that became the North Sea. Final sea level rise removed that initial gateway to Britain, so we cannot judge what damage the tsunami wrought, but tools and animal bones dredged from the area show that it was full of game and people. A disaster, but not one linked to seismicity. The driving force has been recognised in a series of submarine scars off the west coast of Norway that witness massive slides of sediment on the sea bed area known as Storegga. Similar scars around the Hawaiian Islands and those making up the Azores and Canaries in the mid Atlantic bear witness to many large slippage events, on the sea bed and from the islands themselves. Recognising signs of past tsunami damage in coastal areas worldwide reveals plenty of cases triggered by landslides rather than earthquakes.

The March 2011 Sendai tsunami and those which ravaged lands around the Indian Ocean in late 2004 formed because of vertical movements on major faults that dropped or shoved up the oceanic crust itself. Yet any sudden change in the shape of the sea floor will displace all the ocean water above, the difference from seismic tsunamis lies in the energy source: instead of tectonic plate forces, gravitational potential energy is released by slumps and slides. That may happen because of erosion producing unstable steep slopes, build up of sedimentary piles, large outpourings of lavas or slopes being destabilised by minor earthquakes or release of gases from the sediments themselves. The Mesolithic submarine slide at Storegga may have been set in motion by massive release of methane from gas-hydrate deposits, and such is the extent of scarring of the sea floor there that it must have happened before and may do so again.

1755 copper engraving showing Lisbon in flames...

Copper engraving showing the 1755 Lisbon tsunami overwhelming ships in the harbor. (credit: Wikipedia)

Realisation of the potential for tsunamis to be triggered by submarine and coastal and slides has spurred bathymetric studies in a number of likely areas, including the Gorringe Bank that lies on the Atlantic floor just west of the Iberian Peninsula. It is tectonic in origin but has a thick veneer of sediment brought by Iberian river systems. On its northern flank is a 35 km long scar of a slip that moved 80 km3 of sediment (Lo Iacono, C. And 11 others 2012. Large, deepwater slope failures: implications for landslide generated tsunamis.  Geology, v. 40, p. 931-934). The Spanish-British-Italian group estimate that the slip would have generated a 15 m tsunami most likely to have affected the Iberian coast south of Lisbon. Conditions for slides of si,ilar magnitude still exist on the Gorringe Bank. One unstable system ripe for collapse is present far out in the Atlantic on the south-east coast of the island of Picos in the Azores (Hildenbrand, A. et al. 2012. Large-sale active slump on the southeast flan of Picos Island, Azores. Geology, v. 40, p. 939-942). This is in a coastal area where repeated volcanism has piled up lavas on the flanks of the island’s main volcanic edifice. Failure has already started, with a number of prominent arcuate scars having developed. The Picos slide moves very slowly sideways but vertical displacements ar estimated at up to a centimetre a year. The volume of the slowly moving mass is an order of magnitude less that the fossil slide on the Gorringe Bank. Yet should it fail entirely, the slopes involved, the absence of water’s slowing effect and the height of the mass might ensure comparable energy is delivered to the Atlantic Ocean, though the likely trajectory of tsunamis would be parallel to the coast of Africa rather than directly towards it.

Landslides of all kinds, though hazardous, have long been thought to be less of a risk to life globally than the more spectacular seismic and volcanic hazards, but there are few data to support that view. In an attempt to assess the annual risk properly, David Petley of Durham University, UK ‘mined’ world-wide landslide records for the seven years since 2004 (Petley, D. 2012. Global patterns of loss of life from landslides. Geology, v. 40, p. 927-930). There were more than 2600 recorded slope-failures that killed people and caused a total of more than 32 thousand fatalities: ten time more than previous vague estimates. This is a minimum because many landslides occur in very remote areas, especially in the mountainous regions of China and the Himalaya. The number of fatalities accompanying each event shows distinct signs, on a country-by-country basis, of a relationship with population density. Several international agencies are emerging that aim at means of measuring disaster risk, one being the Integrated Global Observing Strategy for Geohazards (IGOS).


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