August 22, 2015

Self-healing landscape: landslides after earthquake

Large ground cracks on a small ridge and landslide in the background after the Nepal quake
of April 2015, upper Bhote Koshi river valley, photo: O. Marc, GFZ

(August 22, 2015)  In mountainous regions earthquakes often cause strong landslides, which can be exacerbated by heavy rain. However, after an initial increase, the frequency of these mass wasting events, often enormous and dangerous, declines, in fact independently of meteorological events and aftershocks.

These new findings are presented by a German-Franco-Japanese team of geoscientists in the current issue of the journal Geology, under the lead of the GFZ German Research Centre for Geosciences. Even after strong earthquake the activity of landslides returns back over the course of one to four years to the background level before the earthquake.

The interactions over time between earthquakes and processing shaping the landscape are still not well understood. The geoscientists have investigated areas affected by landslides related to four moderate to severe earthquakes (6.6 to 7.6 on Richter scale). "The main difficulty was that one must distinguish between the meteorological and the seismic causes of landsliding. Heavy rain can also produce landslides and can enhance landsliding after an earthquake", says GFZ scientists Marc Odin, the lead author of the study. Two processes are interacting here. A strong earthquake shakes soil layer loose from the underlying bedrock and also damages the rock below the top soil. Water seeps into the resulting the cracks and crevices and acts like a lubricating film on which a mountain slope slides into the valley.

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