How to classify a landslide

Discovering geology – landslides

Landslides are classified by their type of movement. The four main types of movement are:

Landslides can be classified as just one of these movements or, more commonly, can be a mixture of several. Geologists also refer to the type of material involved in the movement e.g. rock, debris, earth.

Falls

Falls are landslides that involve the collapse of material from a cliff or steep slope. Falls usually involve a mixture of free fall through the air, bouncing or rolling. A fall type landslide results in the collection of rock or debris near the base of a slope.

A good example of a fall landslide is the Rock fall at Pennington Point.

Rock Fall
Information icon

Falls: the rock mass descends mostly through air by free fall, bouncing or rolling, after being separated from the rest of the slope. BGS ©UKRI. All rights reserved.

Expand icon

Topples

Topple failures involve the forward rotation and movement of a mass of rock, earth or debris out of a slope. This kind of slope failure generally occurs around an axis (or point) at or near the base of the block of rock.

 A good example of a site experiencing topple failures is Aldbrough, UK.

Rock Topple
Information icon

Topples: movements of rock, debris or earth masses by forward rotation about a pivot point. BGS ©UKRI. All rights reserved.

Expand icon

A topple often results in the formation of debris or a debris cone at the base of the slope; this pile is called a talus cone. New talus cones don’t have any plants growing on them. Old talus cone can have weeds and even trees on them.

Limestone debris cone, Assynt
Limestone debris cone in the Allt nan Uamh, Assynt. BGS ©UKRI. All rights reserved.

Slides

Slides are characterised by a failure of material at depth and then movement by sliding along a rupture or slip surface. There are two types of slide failure, rotational slides (slumps) and translational (planar) slides:

Rotational slides

Holbeck Hall Landslide
Information icon

A good example of a rotational landslide is the Holbeck Hall landslide, in Scarborough North Yorkshire, England. The 1 million tonnes of cliff failed as a rotational landslide over a couple of days in June 1993 and destroyed the Hotel at the top of the cliff. The rotated blocks can be seen as grass covered ‘benches’ in the photograph. BGS ©UKRI. All rights reserved.

A slide type landslide is a down-slope movement of material that occurs along a distinctive rupture or slip surface. If this slip surface is listric (curved or spoon-shaped) the slide is said to be rotational. The slip surface tends to be deeper than that of other landslide types and not structurally controlled. These landslides are characterised by a prominent main scarp and back-tilted bench or block at the top with limited internal deformation. Below this, movement is more or less rotational about an axis.

Rotational slides
Information icon

Rotational slides occur on curved slip surfaces where the upper surface of the displaced material may tilt backwards toward the scarp. BGS ©UKRI. All rights reserved.

Expand icon

Translational slides

A translational or planar landslide is a down-slope movement of material that occurs along a distinctive planar surface of weakness such as a fault, joint or bedding plane.    Some of the largest and most damaging landslides on earth are translational.  These landslides occur at all scales and are not self-stabilising.  They can be very rapid where discontinuities are steep.

Translational landslides commonly trigger debris flows in Scotland such as the Stob Coire Sgriodain landslide.

Translational slide
Information icon

Translational slides: occur on curved slip surfaces where the upper surface of the displaced material may tilt backwards toward the scarp. BGS ©UKRI. All rights reserved.

Expand icon

Flows

Flows are landslides that involve the movement of material down a slope in the form of a fluid. Flows often leave behind a distinctive upside-down funnel shaped deposit where the landslide material has stopped moving.  There are different types of flows: mud, debris and rock (avalanches).  Two of the most common in the UK are mud flows and debris flows.  Mud flows can be found on the south coast of England, often associated with larger complex landslides such as Stonebarrow Hill in Dorset.  Debris flows can be very rapid and usually occur on steep slopes such as those at the Rest And Be Thankful Pass in Argyll and Bute. 

Flows
Information icon

Flows are landslides that involve the movement of material down a slope in the form of a fluid. BGS ©UKRI. All rights reserved.

Expand icon

How does BGS classify a landslide?

BGS follows the scheme based on Varnes (1978) , Cruden and Varnes (1996) and Hungr et al. (2014). The scheme terminology is also that suggested by the Unesco Working Party on the ‘World Landslide Inventory’ (WP WLI 1990, WP/WLI 1993).

You may also be interested in:

Storegga landslide

Landslides in the UK and around the world

BGS maintains the National Landslide Database, with over 16 500 records, and is the definitive source of landslide information in Great Britain.

Show more
Debris flow on A83

Understanding landslides

What is a landslide? Why do landslides happen? How to classify a landslide. Landslides in the UK and around the world.

Show more
fall at Pennington Point. (Photo: © Eve Mathews)

Landslide case studies

The landslides team at the BGS has studied numerous landslides. This work informs our geological maps, memoirs and sheet explanations and provides data for our National Landslide Database, which underpins much of our research.

Show more
Debris pathway downslope, partly netted. Debris on the railway line has been cleared and the line is in the process of being repaired.

Landslides

The BGS landslides team is involved in many aspects of landslide research, with the primary objective of building resilience both in the UK and internationally.

Show more

Was this page helpful?

  • How can we make this section better?*

  • Please select a reason*

  • How can we make this section better?*