Recognizing Landslides

Recognizing Landslides

This page provides information on how to recognize landslides; scroll down for more information.

Contents on this page regarding recognizing landslides:

Landslides — Slope failures — Mass wasting

Every landslide, or slope movement, is unique, and is best judged on a case-by-case basis. The specific behavior of individual landslides is most often unpredictable, even when studied in detail. When they will move, and by how much, is often speculative. Cycles of wet weather with above average rainfall, particularly when followed by storms with intense rainfall, trigger landslides. Three common landslide types (or slope movements) in North Carolina include:

  • debris flows,
  • debris and earth slides, and
  • rockslides.

Examples (recent landslides with loss of life and significant property damage)

Landslides and earth movements have been prominent in recent years in North Carolina. Several deaths have been directly attributed to these events, along with property damage and interruption of commerce. Click for historical cost estimates (dollar values not inflation corrected) of landslides and other geologic hazard events in North Carolina.

Landslides from Tropical Storm Cindy (July 2005) — The remnants of Tropical Storm Cindy tracked across western North Carolina on July 6-7, 2005. A four-year-old volunteer fire department building was damaged making it unsafe to occupy.

Landslides from Hurricane Frances(September 2004) — The remnants of Hurricane Frances tracked across western North Carolina on September 8, 2004. In addition to flooding, property damage and interruption of transportation corridors occurred owing to landslides and downslope movement of earth and rock triggered by very heavy and intense rainfall.

Landslides from Hurricane Ivan(September 2004) — The remnants of Hurricane Ivan tracked across western North Carolina on September 16-17, 2004. In addition to flooding, property damage and interruption of transportation corridors occurred owing to landslides and downslope movement of earth and rock triggered by very heavy and intense rainfall.

Peeks Creek, Macon County — (September 2004) about $1.3 million in property damage occurred during this event related to Hurricane Ivan.

Interstate I-540, Wake County(summer 2000) — While landslides are more frequent in the mountainous part of North Carolina, landslides also occur in other parts of the state. One landslide example occurred in the summer of 2000 along Interstate I-540 in Raleigh in Wake County.

Holly Springs, Wake County (summer 2003) — Piedmont earth movements have affected homes as well. In May 2003 a soil embankment failure in Holly Springs, Wake County, North Carolina, affected a number of homes.

Blue Ridge Parkway (April 24, 2003) — A landslide closed the Blue Ridge Parkway in April 2003 following heavy rains (see image below).

Blue Ridge Parkway (April 24, 2003) — A landslide closed the Blue Ridge Parkway in April 2003 following heavy rains

Types of Landslides

Debris Flows 

Debris flows are rapidly flowing mixtures of soil, rock particles and water. The media, when referring to debris flows, often uses the term "mudslide". The soil mass that initially moves is usually a rocky, silt-sand mixture that is not highly plastic or cohesive (i.e., one that contains a lot of clay). The lower cohesion allows the soil to "liquefy" during heavy rains and move rapidly, up to 30+ mph down slope. Once movement begins, there is often insufficient time to reach safety. Debris flows often originate in hollows on steep mountain slopes where thin (<6ft) soil overlies hard bedrock. The failed soil mass usually (though not always) travels down an existing drainage and accumulates into a lobe-shaped mass near the toe of the slope. Steeper slopes (>25-30 degrees) combined with a long run-out distance between the point of origin and the flatter toe-slopes create the potential for fast movement.

Debris flows often originate in hillslope depressions, or hollows, near the headwaters of mountain streams. Often triggered by intense rainfall, debris flows typically follow mountain stream channels. Building homes or other structures at the base of steep hillslopes (>30 degrees), especially near stream channels, increases their vulnerability to damaging debris flows. Land-disturbing activity on steep slopes can also increase the likelihood of debris flows.

Indicators That Further Movement is Likely In The Upslope Area

  • Unstable (i.e., loose, wet soil) material remaining in the scar area — Exposed bedrock in the scar and along the track indicates the bulk of the material may have already been taken downslope and the situation is relatively more stable,
  • Tension cracks, scarps, or leaning trees above the scar area,
  • Seepage or flowing water exiting the slope within or above a mass of soil remaining on the slope; water exiting the slope at the soil-rock contact, and
  • Culverts or other road drainage patterns directing runoff toward the unstable area.

Debris or Earth Slides 

Debris (soil-rock mixture) or earth (clay-silt soil) slides usually move at a slower rate than debris flows because the water content is too low for the mass to "liquefy". This can be due to the higher clay content of the soil that requires more moisture to liquefy. Movement rates are typically on the order of inches per day to feet per day, particularly during wet periods. During wet weather cycles, slides can be self-perpetuating. Initial movement opens tension cracks and scarps providing pathways for water to infiltrate deeper into the slide mass, thereby further decreasing the stability of the slope. Further movement widens existing tension cracks and scarps allowing more infiltration pathways, and so on. Shearing along the slide planes usually decreases the strength of the soil, a further destabilizing factor.

Movement Indicators

Ground Slopes

  • Enlarging tension cracks and scarps, especially those forming upslope of the main scarp,
  • Leaning, tilting or dying trees, tree roots stretched across scarps and tension cracks.
  • Bulging or hummocky ground surface,
  • Changes in normal drainage patterns,
  • Surface water entering the slide mass, and
  • Culverts or other road drainage patterns directing runoff toward the unstable area.


  • Cracked masonry, or pavement,
  • Walls, posts, rooflines not plumb or level, or buckling,
  • Tilted or cracked chimneys,
  • Windows and doors stick, broken glass,
  • Plumbing or gas line leaks,
  • Leaning utility poles, street signs, and
  • Employ the services of a qualified building inspector.

Notes on Stabilizing Slopes to Salvage Houses

Each case is unique, and involves evaluating a number of alternatives. Stabilizing a slope can easily exceed the monetary value of a house. Covering a slope with plastic or placing rock on the slope is a short-term tactic, at best. It is very easy to waste money on attempts to stabilize a moving slope.

1. Can the structure, such as a mobile home, be moved to a nearby stable or safe location?

2. In most cases, the successful long-term stabilization of a slope above or below a home requires the services of a geotechnical engineer experienced in the soil and rock types in the affected area.

3. Knowledge of the extent, geometry and properties of the unstable material relative to the structure must be known, or conservatively assumed, to help ensure successful, cost effective stabilization. For example, if a home is built on an embankment, what is the extent of the embankment and where is pre-existing natural ground surface?

4. Are the unstable slopes above or below the structure - or both?

5. Can the unstable material be removed or regraded to leave a stable slope?

6. If the unstable cannot be removed and preserve the structure, can the slide mass be stabilized in place?

7. Does the design life of the stabilization equal or exceed that of the structure to be saved?

8. What is the allowable differential settlement of the structure to be versus the degree of settlement allowed by the stabilization effort?

9. Walls over 4-6 feet high should be designed by an experienced geotechnical or structural engineer familiar with the materials used in the wall and the material being supported by the wall. Common types of successful, engineered retaining walls used to stabilize slopes above and below structure:

  • Gravity walls - usually made of rock, or concrete or concrete block,
  • Driven H-piles with treated timber lagging (with or without tie backs),
  • Reinforced earth walls - geo-textile layers within a compacted earth fill, and
  • Wire rock baskets (e.g., gabions)

10. Other stabilization methods:

  • Pressure grouting,
  • Soil nailing, and
  • Drainage (e.g., horizontal drains)

11. Walls typically used for landscaping, (e.g., railroad ties, or stacked treated lumber) have severe limitations when used to stabilize a slope to protect a home. Timber walls typically have a design life of less than 15 years.

12. Proper surface and subsurface drainage is a key component of successful slope stabilization. Gutters and septic systems can add unwanted water to unstable areas.

Rock Slides and Rock Fall 

Rock slides and rock fall usually occur along roadways, but can occur on any modified or natural rock slope. They can occur in conjunction with heavy rainfall, but often occur at other times, usually without notice. Freeze-thaw cycles and wedging by tree roots can loosen blocks of rock from a slope. Rock can easily weigh 165 pounds per cubic foot, so not much moving rock is needed to cause damage or injury. A rolling and bounding basketball-sized rock can easily go through a roof. Rocks slide or fall because of pre-existing planes of weakness within the rock mass. Where these planes of weakness are inclined toward and intersect an excavated slope, the odds of a rockslide increase.

Indicators of Potential Rock Movement

  • Apertures between rock blocks, open or dilated;
  • Surfaces of the planes of weakness are degraded or weathered, particularly with red-brown to yellow-brown staining;
  • The location has a past history of rock slides; and
  • Visible, flowing water along planes of weakness.

Stabilizing Rock Slopes

Stabilizing a rock slope is usually very expensive and requires specialized equipment along with engineering experience and expertise. Examples include:

  • Drilled-in rock bolts, and
  • Wire mesh blankets, usually only effective for containing small blocks of a rock on a slope.


North Carolina Geological Survey, 2005,When the Earth Moves, Randy Bechtel, editor: Information Circular 32: North Carolina Geological Survey, Raleigh, North Carolina, 24 p.

Varnes, D. J., 1978, Slope movement types and processes: In: Landslide Analysis and Control: In Schuster, R. L., Krizak, eds. Transportation Research Board Special Report No. 176, National Academy of Sciences, Washington, D. C., P. 11-33.

Contact Information

For additional information about landslide hazards in North Carolina, please contact Dr. David Korte with our Asheville Regional Office:

2090 U. S. Highway 70,
Swannanoa, North Carolina 28778.

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