Data from 40 historical world-wide earthquakes were studied to determine the characteristics, geologic environments, and hazards of landslides caused by seismic events. This sample of 40 events was supplemented with intensity data from several hundred United States earthquakes to study relations between landslide distribution and seismic parameters. Fourteen types of landslides were identified in the earthquakes studied. The most abundant of these were rock falls, disrupted soil slides, and rock slides. The greatest losses of human life were due to rock avalanches, rapid soil flows, and rock falls. Correlations between magnitude (M) and landslide distribution show that the maximum area likely to be affected by landslides in a seismic event increases from approximately 0 at M ≅ 4.0 to 500,000 km2 at M = 9.2.
Threshold magnitudes, minimum shaking intensities, and relations between M and distance from epicenter or fault rupture were used to define relative levels of shaking that trigger landslides in susceptible materials. Four types of internally disrupted landslides—rock falls, rock slides, soil falls, and disrupted soil slides—are initiated by the weakest shaking. More coherent, deeper-seated slides require stronger shaking; lateral spreads and flows require shaking that is stronger still; and the strongest shaking is probably required for very highly disrupted rock avalanches and soil avalanches.
Each type of earthquake-induced landslide occurs in a particular suite of geologic environments. These range from overhanging slopes of well-indurated rock to slopes of less than 1° underlain by soft, unconsolidated sediments. Materials most susceptible to earthquake-induced landslides include weakly cemented rocks, more-indurated rocks with prominent or pervasive discontinuities, residual and colluvial sand, volcanic soils containing sensitive clay, loess, cemented soils, granular alluvium, granular deltaic deposits, and granular man-made fill. Few earthquake-induced landslides reactivate older landslides; most are in materials that have not previously failed.