Submarine landslide
Submarine landslides are marine
Marine (ocean)
Marine is an umbrella term. As an adjective it is usually applicable to things relating to the sea or ocean, such as marine biology, marine ecology and marine geology...

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...

s that transport sediment
Sediment transport
Sediment transport is the movement of solid particles , typically due to a combination of the force of gravity acting on the sediment, and/or the movement of the fluid in which the sediment is entrained...

 across the continental shelf
Continental shelf
The continental shelf is the extended perimeter of each continent and associated coastal plain. Much of the shelf was exposed during glacial periods, but is now submerged under relatively shallow seas and gulfs, and was similarly submerged during other interglacial periods. The continental margin,...

 and into the deep ocean
Deep sea
The deep sea, or deep layer, is the lowest layer in the ocean, existing below the thermocline and above the seabed, at a depth of 1000 fathoms or more. Little or no light penetrates this part of the ocean and most of the organisms that live there rely for subsistence on falling organic matter...

. A submarine landslide is initiated when the downwards driving stress (gravity and other factors) exceeds the resisting stress of the seafloor slope material causing movements along one or more concave to planer rupture surfaces. Submarine landslides take place in a variety of different settings including planes as low as 1° and can cause significant damage to both life and property. Recent advances have been made in understanding the nature and processes of submarine landslides through the use of sidescan sonar and other seafloor mapping technology.


Submarine Landslides have different causes which relate to both the geological
Geology is the science comprising the study of solid Earth, the rocks of which it is composed, and the processes by which it evolves. Geology gives insight into the history of the Earth, as it provides the primary evidence for plate tectonics, the evolutionary history of life, and past climates...

 attributes of the landslide material and transient environmental factors affecting the submarine environment. Common causes of landslides include: i) presence of weak geological layers, ii) overpressure due to rapid accumulation of sedimentary deposits, iii) earthquakes, iv) storm wave loading and hurricanes, v) gas hydrate dissociation, vi) groundwater
Groundwater is water located beneath the ground surface in soil pore spaces and in the fractures of rock formations. A unit of rock or an unconsolidated deposit is called an aquifer when it can yield a usable quantity of water. The depth at which soil pore spaces or fractures and voids in rock...

 seepage and high pore water pressure, vii) glacial
A glacier is a large persistent body of ice that forms where the accumulation of snow exceeds its ablation over many years, often centuries. At least 0.1 km² in area and 50 m thick, but often much larger, a glacier slowly deforms and flows due to stresses induced by its weight...

 loading, viii) volcanic island growth, and ix) oversteepening.

Weak geological layers

The presence of weak geological layers is a factor which contributes to submarine landslides at all scales. This has been confirmed by seafloor imaging such as swath bathymetric mapping and 3D seismic reflection data. Despite their ubiquity, very little is known about the nature and characteristics of the weak geological layers, as they have rarely been sampled and very little geotechnical work has been conducted on them. An example of a slide which was caused by weak geological layers is the Storegga slide
Storegga Slide
The three Storegga Slides are considered to be amongst the largest known landslides. They occurred under water, at the edge of Norway's continental shelf , in the Norwegian Sea, 100 km north-west of the Møre coast, causing a very large tsunami in the North Atlantic Ocean...

, near Norway
Norway , officially the Kingdom of Norway, is a Nordic unitary constitutional monarchy whose territory comprises the western portion of the Scandinavian Peninsula, Jan Mayen, and the Arctic archipelago of Svalbard and Bouvet Island. Norway has a total area of and a population of about 4.9 million...

 which had a total volume of 3 300 km³.


Overpressure due to rapid deposition
Deposition (geology)
Deposition is the geological process by which material is added to a landform or land mass. Fluids such as wind and water, as well as sediment flowing via gravity, transport previously eroded sediment, which, at the loss of enough kinetic energy in the fluid, is deposited, building up layers of...

 of sediment
Sediment is naturally occurring material that is broken down by processes of weathering and erosion, and is subsequently transported by the action of fluids such as wind, water, or ice, and/or by the force of gravity acting on the particle itself....

 is closely related to weak geological layers. An example of landslides caused by overpressure due to rapid deposition occurred in 1969 on the Mississippi delta
Mississippi Delta
The Mississippi Delta is the distinctive northwest section of the U.S. state of Mississippi that lies between the Mississippi and Yazoo Rivers. The region has been called "The Most Southern Place on Earth" because of its unique racial, cultural, and economic history...

 after Hurricane Camile struck the region.


An earthquake is the result of a sudden release of energy in the Earth's crust that creates seismic waves. The seismicity, seismism or seismic activity of an area refers to the frequency, type and size of earthquakes experienced over a period of time...

s are a key factor which trigger most major submarine landslides. Earthquakes provide significant environmental stresses and can promote elevated pore water pressure which leads to failure. Earthquakes triggered the Grand Banks
Grand Banks
The Grand Banks of Newfoundland are a group of underwater plateaus southeast of Newfoundland on the North American continental shelf. These areas are relatively shallow, ranging from in depth. The cold Labrador Current mixes with the warm waters of the Gulf Stream here.The mixing of these waters...

 landslide of 1929, where a 20 km3 submarine landslide was initiated after an earthquake.

Stormwave loading

Stormwave loading and hurricanes can lead to submarine landslides in shallow regions and were recognised as one of the factors which contributed to the slides which occurred on the Mississippi delta
Mississippi Delta
The Mississippi Delta is the distinctive northwest section of the U.S. state of Mississippi that lies between the Mississippi and Yazoo Rivers. The region has been called "The Most Southern Place on Earth" because of its unique racial, cultural, and economic history...

 in 1969 following Hurricane Camille
Hurricane Camille
Hurricane Camille was the third and strongest tropical cyclone and second hurricane during the 1969 Atlantic hurricane season. The second of three catastrophic Category 5 hurricanes to make landfall in the United States during the 20th century , which it did near the mouth of the Mississippi River...


Gas hydrates

A number of studies have indicated that gas hydrates lie beneath many submarine slopes and can contribute to the triggering of a landslide. Gas hydrates are ice like substances consisting of water and natural gas, which are stable at the temperature and pressure conditions normally found on the seabed. When the temperature rises or the pressure drops the gas hydrate becomes unstable allowing some of the hydrate to dissociate and discharge bubble phase natural gas
Natural gas
Natural gas is a naturally occurring gas mixture consisting primarily of methane, typically with 0–20% higher hydrocarbons . It is found associated with other hydrocarbon fuel, in coal beds, as methane clathrates, and is an important fuel source and a major feedstock for fertilizers.Most natural...

. If pore water flow is impeded then this gas charging leads to excess pore water pressure and decreased slope stability. Gas hydrate dissociation is thought to have contributed to slides at water depths of 1000 to 1300 m off the east coast of the United States and the Storegga slide off the east coast of Norway
Norway , officially the Kingdom of Norway, is a Nordic unitary constitutional monarchy whose territory comprises the western portion of the Scandinavian Peninsula, Jan Mayen, and the Arctic archipelago of Svalbard and Bouvet Island. Norway has a total area of and a population of about 4.9 million...


Groundwater seepage

Groundwater seepage and elevated pore water pressure can cause submarine landslides. Elevated pore water pressure causes reduced frictional resistance to sliding and can result from normal depositional processes, or can be coupled with other causes such as earthquakes, gas hydrate dissociation and glacial loading.

Glacial loading

Sediment failure on glacial
A glacier is a large persistent body of ice that forms where the accumulation of snow exceeds its ablation over many years, often centuries. At least 0.1 km² in area and 50 m thick, but often much larger, a glacier slowly deforms and flows due to stresses induced by its weight...

 margins as a result of glacial loading is common and operates on a wide spectrum of dimensions, ranging from relatively small scale mass wasting processes in fjord
Geologically, a fjord is a long, narrow inlet with steep sides or cliffs, created in a valley carved by glacial activity.-Formation:A fjord is formed when a glacier cuts a U-shaped valley by abrasion of the surrounding bedrock. Glacial melting is accompanied by rebound of Earth's crust as the ice...

s to large scale slides covering several thousand square kilometres. Factors which are significant in glacial loading induced landslides are the flexing of crust due to the loading and unloading of a fluctuating ice front, variation in drainage and groundwater seepage, quick deposition of low plasticity
Plasticity may refer to:Science* Plasticity , in physics and engineering, plasticity is the propensity of a material to undergo permanent deformation under load...

Silt is granular material of a size somewhere between sand and clay whose mineral origin is quartz and feldspar. Silt may occur as a soil or as suspended sediment in a surface water body...

s, rapid formation of moraine
A moraine is any glacially formed accumulation of unconsolidated glacial debris which can occur in currently glaciated and formerly glaciated regions, such as those areas acted upon by a past glacial maximum. This debris may have been plucked off a valley floor as a glacier advanced or it may have...

s and till
thumb|right|Closeup of glacial till. Note that the larger grains in the till are completely surrounded by the matrix of finer material , and this characteristic, known as matrix support, is diagnostic of till....

 above hemipelagic interstaidal sediments. An example where glacial loading lead to submarine landsliding is the Nyk slide of northern Norway
Norway , officially the Kingdom of Norway, is a Nordic unitary constitutional monarchy whose territory comprises the western portion of the Scandinavian Peninsula, Jan Mayen, and the Arctic archipelago of Svalbard and Bouvet Island. Norway has a total area of and a population of about 4.9 million...


Volcanic island growth

Slope failures due to volcanic island growth are among the largest on earth, involving volumes of several cubic kilometres. The failure occurs as large bodies of lava
Lava refers both to molten rock expelled by a volcano during an eruption and the resulting rock after solidification and cooling. This molten rock is formed in the interior of some planets, including Earth, and some of their satellites. When first erupted from a volcanic vent, lava is a liquid at...

 form above weak marine sediments which are prone to failure. Failure is particularly common on edifices which are over 2500 m but rare on edifices which are less than 2500 m. Variation in the behaviour of the slides is significant, with some slides barely keeping up with the growth on the upper part of the volcano while others may surge forward great distances, attaining landslide lengths greater than 200 km. Volcanic island submarine landslides occur in places such as the Hawaiian Islands
Hawaiian Islands
The Hawaiian Islands are an archipelago of eight major islands, several atolls, numerous smaller islets, and undersea seamounts in the North Pacific Ocean, extending some 1,500 miles from the island of Hawaii in the south to northernmost Kure Atoll...



Oversteepening is caused by scouring due to oceanic currents and can result in the triggering of submarine landslides.

In some cases the relationship between the cause and the resulting landslide can be quite clear (eg: the failure of an oversteepened slope) while in other cases the relationships may not be so obvious. In most cases more than one factor may contribute towards the initiation of a landslide event. This is clearly seen on the Norwegian continental slope where the location of landslides such as Storegga and Traenadjupet is related to weak geological layers. However the position of these weak layers is determined by regional variation in sedimentation style, which itself is controlled by large scale environmental factors such as climate change between glacial and interglacial
An Interglacial period is a geological interval of warmer global average temperature lasting thousands of years that separates consecutive glacial periods within an ice age...

 conditions. Even when considering all the above listed factors, in the end it was calculated that the landslide needed an earthquake for it to ultimately be initiated.

The environments in which submarine landslides are commonly found in are fjords, active river delta
River delta
A delta is a landform that is formed at the mouth of a river where that river flows into an ocean, sea, estuary, lake, reservoir, flat arid area, or another river. Deltas are formed from the deposition of the sediment carried by the river as the flow leaves the mouth of the river...

s on the continental margin
Continental margin
The continental margin is the zone of the ocean floor that separates the thin oceanic crust from thick continental crust. Continental margins constitute about 28% of the oceanic area....

, submarine canyon fan systems, open continental slopes, and oceanic volcanic islands and ridges.

Submarine landslide processes

There are a variety of different types of submarine mass movements. All of the movements are mutually exclusive, for example a slide cannot be a fall. Some types of mass movements, such as slides, can be distinguished by the disrupted step like morphology which shows that there was only minor movement of the failed mass. The displaced material on a slide moves on a thin region of high strain. In flows the slide zone will be left bare and the displaced mass may be deposited hundreds of kilometres away from the origin of the slide. The displaced sediment of fall will predominantly travel through the water, falling, bouncing and rolling. Despite the variety of different landslides present in submarine environment, only slides, debris flow and turbidity currents provide a substantial contribution to gravity driven sediment transport.

Recent advances in 3-D seismic mapping have revealed spectacular images of submarine landslides off Angola
Angola, officially the Republic of Angola , is a country in south-central Africa bordered by Namibia on the south, the Democratic Republic of the Congo on the north, and Zambia on the east; its west coast is on the Atlantic Ocean with Luanda as its capital city...

 and Brunei
Brunei , officially the State of Brunei Darussalam or the Nation of Brunei, the Abode of Peace , is a sovereign state located on the north coast of the island of Borneo, in Southeast Asia...

, showing in detail the size of blocks transported and how they moved along the sea floor.

It was initially thought that submarine landslides in cohesive sediments systematically and sequentially developed downslope from slide to debris flow to turbidity current through slowly increasing disintegration and entrainment of water. However it is now thought that this model is likely to be an oversimplification, as some landslides travel many hundreds of kilometres without any noticeable change into turbidity currents, as shown in figure 3 while others completely change into turbidity currents near to the source. This variation in the development of different submarine landslides is associated with the development of velocity vectors in the displaced mass. The in-place stress, sediment properties (particularly density), and morphology of the failed mass will determine whether the slide stops a short distance along the rupture surface or will transform into a flow which travels great distances.

The initial density
The mass density or density of a material is defined as its mass per unit volume. The symbol most often used for density is ρ . In some cases , density is also defined as its weight per unit volume; although, this quantity is more properly called specific weight...

 of the sediment plays a key role in the mobilization into flows and the distances that the slide will travel. If the sediment is a soft, fluid material then the slide is likely to travel great distances and a flow is more likely to occur. However, if the sediment is stiffer then the slide will only travel a short distance and a flow is less likely to occur. Furthermore the ability to flow may also be dependent upon the amount of energy transferred to the falling sediment throughout the failure event. Often large landslides on the continental margin are complicated and components of slide, debris flow and turbidity current may all be apparent when examining the remains of a submarine landslide.


The primary hazards associated with submarine landslides are the direct destruction of infrastructure and tsunami
A tsunami is a series of water waves caused by the displacement of a large volume of a body of water, typically an ocean or a large lake...


Landslides can have significant economic impacts on infrastructure such as the rupture of fibre optic submarine cable
Submarine cable
Submarine cable may refer to:*Submarine communications cable*Submarine power cable...

s and pipelines and damage to offshore drilling platforms and can continue onwards on slope angles as low as 1°. An example of submarine cable damage was discovered in the Grand Banks slide of 1929 where the landslide and resulting turbidity current broke a series of submarine cables up to nearly 600 km away from the beginning of the slide. Further destruction of infrastructure occurred when Hurricane Camille hit the Mississippi delta in 1969 causing a landslide which damaged several offshore drilling platforms.

Submarine landslides can pose a significant hazard when they cause a tsunami. Although a variety of different types of landslides can cause tsunami, all the resulting tsunami have similar features such as large run-ups close to the tsunami, but quicker attenuation compared to tsunami caused by earthquakes. An example of this was the July 17, 1998, Papua New Guinea
Papua New Guinea
Papua New Guinea , officially the Independent State of Papua New Guinea, is a country in Oceania, occupying the eastern half of the island of New Guinea and numerous offshore islands...

n landslide tsunami where waves up to 15 m high impacted a 20 km section of the coast killing 2,200 people, yet at greater distances the tsunami was not a major hazard. This is due to the comparatively small source area of most landslide tsunami (relative to the area affected by large earthquakes) which causes the generation of shorter wavelength waves. These waves are greatly affected by coastal amplification (which amplifies the local effect) and radial damping (which reduces the distal effect).

Recent findings show that the nature of a tsunami is dependent upon volume, velocity, initial acceleration, length and thickness of the contributing landslide. Volume and initial acceleration are the key factors which determine whether a landslide will form a tsunami. A sudden deceleration of the landslide may also result in larger waves. The length of the slide influences both the wavelength and the maximum wave height. Travel time or run out distance of slide will also influence the resulting tsunami wavelength. In most cases the submarine landslides are noticeably subcritical, that is the Frounde number (the ratio of slide speed to wave propagation) is significantly less than one. This suggests that the tsunami will move away from the wave generating slide preventing the build up of the wave. Failures in shallow waters tend to produce larger tsunamis because the wave is more critical as the speed of propagation is less here. Furthermore shallower waters are generally closer to the coast meaning that there is less radial damping by the time the tsunami reaches the shore. Conversely tsunamis triggered by earthquakes are more critical when the seabed displacement occurs in the deep ocean as the first wave (which is less affected by depth) has a shorter wavelength and is enlarged when travelling from deeper to shallower waters.

The effects of a submarine landslide on infrastructure can be costly and landslide generated tsunami can be both destructive and deadly.

See also

  • List of landforms
  • Submarine canyon
    Submarine canyon
    A submarine canyon is a steep-sided valley on the sea floor of the continental slope. Many submarine canyons are found as extensions to large rivers; however there are some that have no such association. Canyons cutting the continental slopes have been found at depths greater than 2 km below sea...

  • Plate tectonics
    Plate tectonics
    Plate tectonics is a scientific theory that describes the large scale motions of Earth's lithosphere...

  • Physical oceanography
    Physical oceanography
    Physical oceanography is the study of physical conditions and physical processes within the ocean, especially the motions and physical properties of ocean waters.Physical oceanography is one of several sub-domains into which oceanography is divided...

External links

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