Mass wasting
Mass wasting, also known as slope movement or mass movement, is the geomorphic
Geomorphology is the scientific study of landforms and the processes that shape them...

 process by which soil
Soil is a natural body consisting of layers of mineral constituents of variable thicknesses, which differ from the parent materials in their morphological, physical, chemical, and mineralogical characteristics...

, regolith
Regolith is a layer of loose, heterogeneous material covering solid rock. It includes dust, soil, broken rock, and other related materials and is present on Earth, the Moon, some asteroids, and other terrestrial planets and moons.-Etymology:...

, and rock
Rock (geology)
In geology, rock or stone is a naturally occurring solid aggregate of minerals and/or mineraloids.The Earth's outer solid layer, the lithosphere, is made of rock. In general rocks are of three types, namely, igneous, sedimentary, and metamorphic...

 move downslope under the force of gravity. Types of mass wasting include creep, slides, flows, topples, and falls, each with its own characteristic features, and taking place over timescales from seconds to years. Mass wasting occurs on both terrestrial and submarine slopes, and has been observed on Earth
Earth is the third planet from the Sun, and the densest and fifth-largest of the eight planets in the Solar System. It is also the largest of the Solar System's four terrestrial planets...

, Mars
Mars is the fourth planet from the Sun in the Solar System. The planet is named after the Roman god of war, Mars. It is often described as the "Red Planet", as the iron oxide prevalent on its surface gives it a reddish appearance...

, Venus
Venus is the second planet from the Sun, orbiting it every 224.7 Earth days. The planet is named after Venus, the Roman goddess of love and beauty. After the Moon, it is the brightest natural object in the night sky, reaching an apparent magnitude of −4.6, bright enough to cast shadows...

, and Jupiter's moon Io
Io (moon)
Io ) is the innermost of the four Galilean moons of the planet Jupiter and, with a diameter of , the fourth-largest moon in the Solar System. It was named after the mythological character of Io, a priestess of Hera who became one of the lovers of Zeus....


When the gravitational force acting on a slope exceeds its resisting force, slope failure (mass wasting) occurs. The slope material's strength and cohesion
Cohesion (chemistry)
Cohesion or cohesive attraction or cohesive force is the action or property of like molecules sticking together, being mutually attractive...

 and the amount of internal friction between material help maintain the slope's stability and are known collectively as the slope's shear strength
Shear strength (soil)
Shear strength is a term used in soil mechanics to describe the magnitude of the shear stress that a soil can sustain. The shear resistance of soil is a result of friction and interlocking of particles, and possibly cementation or bonding at particle contacts. Due to interlocking, particulate...

. The steepest angle that a cohesionless slope can maintain without losing its stability is known as its angle of repose
Angle of repose
The angle of repose or, more precisely, the critical angle of repose, of a granular material is the steepest angle of descent or dip of the slope relative to the horizontal plane when material on the slope face is on the verge of sliding. This angle is in the range 0°–90°.When bulk granular...

. When a slope possesses this angle, its shear strength perfectly counterbalances the force of gravity acting upon it.

Mass wasting may occur at a very slow rate, particularly in areas that are very dry or those areas that receive sufficient rainfall such that vegetation has stabilized the surface. It may also occur at very high speed, such as in rock slides or landslides, with disastrous consequences, both immediate and delayed, e.g., resulting from the formation of landslide dam
Landslide dam
A landslide dam, debris dam, or barrier lake is a natural damming of a river by some kind of mass wasting: landslide, debris flow, rock avalanche or volcano. If it is caused by earthquake, it may also be called a quake lake. Some landslide dams are as high as the largest existing artificial dam...


Factors that change the potential of mass wasting include: change in slope angle; weakening of material by weathering
Weathering is the breaking down of rocks, soils and minerals as well as artificial materials through contact with the Earth's atmosphere, biota and waters...

; increased water content; changes in vegetation
Vegetation is a general term for the plant life of a region; it refers to the ground cover provided by plants. It is a general term, without specific reference to particular taxa, life forms, structure, spatial extent, or any other specific botanical or geographic characteristics. It is broader...

 cover; and overloading.

The importance of water in mass wasting

Water can increase or decrease the stability of a slope depending on the amount present. Small amounts of water can strengthen soils because the surface tension of water gives the soil a lot of cohesion. This allows the soil to resist erosion better than if it were dry. If too much water is present the water may act as a lubricant, accelerating the erosion process and resulting in different types of mass wasting (i.e. mudflows, landslides, etc.). A good example of this is to think of a sand castle. Water must be mixed with sand in order for the castle to keep its shape. If too much water is added the sand washes away, if not enough water is added the sand falls and can not keep its shape.

Types of mass movement

Types of mass movement are distinguished based on how the soil, regolith or rock moves downslope as a whole.


Downhill creep
Downhill creep
Downhill creep, or commonly just creep, is the slow downward progression of rock and soil down a low grade slope; it can also refer to slow deformation of such materials as a result of prolonged pressure and stress. Creep may appear to an observer to be continuous, but it really is the sum of...

 is a long term process. The combination of small movements of soil or rock in different directions over time are directed by gravity gradually downslope. The steeper the slope, the faster the creep. The creep makes trees and shrubs curve to maintain their perpendicularity, and they can trigger landslides if they lose their root footing. The surface soil can migrate under the influence of cycles of freezing and thawing, or hot and cold temperatures, inching its way towards the bottom of the slope forming terracettes. This happens at a rate that is not noticeable to the naked eye.


A landslide
A landslide or landslip is a geological phenomenon which includes a wide range of ground movement, such as rockfalls, deep failure of slopes and shallow debris flows, which can occur in offshore, coastal and onshore environments...

, also called a landslip, is a rapid movement of a large mass of earth and rocks down a hill or a mountainside. Little or no flowage of the materials occurs on a given slope until heavy rain and resultant lubrication by the same rainwater facilitate the movement of the materials, causing a landslide to occur. The common forms of landslides are slump, debris slide, rock slide, rock fall, debris fall and avalanche.


Movement of soil and regolith that more resembles fluid behavior is called a flow. These include avalanche
An avalanche is a sudden rapid flow of snow down a slope, occurring when either natural triggers or human activity causes a critical escalating transition from the slow equilibrium evolution of the snow pack. Typically occurring in mountainous terrain, an avalanche can mix air and water with the...

s, mudflow
A mudslide is the most rapid and fluid type of downhill mass wasting. It is a rapid movement of a large mass of mud formed from loose soil and water. Similar terms are mudflow, mud stream, debris flow A mudslide is the most rapid (up to 80 km/h, or 50 mph) and fluid type of downhill mass...

s, debris flow
Debris flow
A debris flow is a fast moving, liquefied landslide of unconsolidated, saturated debris that looks like flowing concrete. It is differentiated from a mudflow in terms of the viscosity and textural properties of the flow. Flows can carry material ranging in size from clay to boulders, and may...

s, earth flow, lahars and sturzstrom
A sturzstrom is a rare, unique type of landslide consisting of soil and rock which is characterized by having a great horizontal movement when compared to its initial vertical drop - as much as 20 or 30 times the vertical distance...

s. Water, air and ice are often involved in enabling fluidlike motion of the material.


A slipping of coherent rock material along the curved surface of a decline.
Slumps involve a mass of soil or other material sliding along a curved surface (shaped like a spoon).
It forms a small, crescent-shaped cliff, or abrupt scarp at the top end of the slope. There can be more than one scarp down the slope.


A fall, including rockfall
Rockfall or rock-fall refers to quantities of rock falling freely from a cliff face. A rockfall is a fragment of rock detached by sliding, toppling, or falling, that falls along a vertical or sub-vertical cliff, proceeds down slope by bouncing and flying along ballistic trajectories or by rolling...

, is where regolith cascades down a slope, but is not of sufficient volume or viscosity to behave as a flow. Falls are promoted in rocks which are characterised by presence of vertical cracks.
Falls are a result of undercutting of water as well as undercutting of waves. They usually occur at very steep slopes such as a cliff face. The rock material may be loosened by earthquakes, rain, plant-root wedging, expanding ice, among other things. The accumulation of rock material that has fallen resides at the base of the structure and is known as talus
Scree, also called talus, is a term given to an accumulation of broken rock fragments at the base of crags, mountain cliffs, or valley shoulders. Landforms associated with these materials are sometimes called scree slopes or talus piles...


Triggers of mass wasting

Soil and regolith remain on a hillslope only while the gravitational forces are unable to overcome the frictional forces keeping the material in place (see Slope stability
Slope stability
The field of slope stability encompasses the analysis of static and dynamic stability of slopes of earth and rock-fill dams, slopes of other types of embankments, excavated slopes, and natural slopes in soil and soft rock...

). Factors that reduce the frictional resistance relative to the downslope forces, and thus initiate slope movement, can include:
  • seismic shaking
  • increased overburden from structures
  • increased soil moisture
  • reduction of roots holding the soil to bedrock
  • undercutting of the slope by excavation
    Earthworks (engineering)
    Earthworks are engineering works created through the moving or processing of quantities of soil or unformed rock.- Civil engineering use :Typical earthworks include roads, railway beds, causeways, dams, levees, canals, and berms...

     or erosion
  • weathering by frost heave
  • bioturbation
    In oceanography, limnology, pedology, geology , and archaeology, bioturbation is the displacement and mixing of sediment particles and solutes by fauna or flora . The mediators of bioturbation are typically annelid worms , bivalves In oceanography, limnology, pedology, geology (especially...

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