Of the numerous kinds of dams that form by natural processes, dams formed from landslides, glacial ice, and late-neoglacial moraines present the greatest threat to people and property. Landslide dams form in a wide range of physiographic settings. The most common types of mass movements that form landslide dams are rock and debris avalanches; rock and soil slumps and slides; and mud, debris, and earth flows. The most common initiation mechanisms for dam-forming landslides are excessive rainfall and snowmelt and earthquakes.

Landslide dams can be classified into six categories based on their relation with the valley floor. Type I dams (11% of 184 landslide dams from around the world that we were able to classify) do not reach from one valley side to the other. Type II dams (44%) span the entire valley floor, in some cases depositing material high on opposite valley sides. Type III dams (41%) move considerable distances both upstream and downstream from the landslide failure. Type IV dams (<1%) are rare and involve the contemporaneous failure of material from both sides of a valley. Type V dams (<1%) also are rare and are created when a single landslide sends multiple tongues of debris into a valley and forms two or more landslide dams in the same reach of river. Type VI dams (3%) involve one or more failure surfaces that extend under the stream or valley and emerge on the opposite valley side.

Many landslide dams fail shortly after formation. In our sample of 73 documented landslide-dam failures, 27% of the landslide dams failed less than 1 day after formation, and about 50% failed within 10 days. Over-topping is by far the most common cause of failure. The timing of failure and the magnitude of the resulting floods are controlled by dam size and geometry; material characteristics of the blockage; rate of inflow to the impoundment; size and depth of the impoundment; bedrock control of flow; and engineering controls such as artificial spill-ways, diversions, tunnels, and planned breaching by blasting or conventional excavation.

Glacial-ice dams can produce at least nine kinds of ice-dammed lakes. The most dangerous are lakes formed in main valleys dammed by tributary glaciers. Failure can occur by erosion of a drainage tunnel under or through the ice dam or by a channel over the ice dam. Cold polar-ice dams generally drain supraglacially or marginally by downmelting of an outlet channel. Warmer, temperate-ice dams tend to fail by sudden englacial or subglacial breaching and drainage.

Late-neoglacial moraine-dammed lakes are located in steep mountain areas affected by the advances and retreats of valley glaciers in the last several centuries. These late-neoglacial dams pose hazards because (1) they are sufficiently young that vegetation has not stabilized their slopes, (2) many dam faces are steeper than the angle of repose, (3) these dams and lakes are immediately downslope from steep crevassed glaciers and near-vertical rock slopes, and (4) downstream from these dams are steep canyons with easily erodible materials that can be incorporated in the flow and increase flood peaks. The most common reported failure mechanism is overtopping and breaching by a wave or series of waves in the lake generated by icefalls, rockfalls, or snow or rock avalanches. Melting of ice cores or frozen ground and piping and seepage are other possible failure mechanisms.

Natural dams may cause upstream flooding as the lake rises and downstream flooding as a result of failure of the dam. Although data are few, for the same potential energy at the dam site, ownstream flood peaks from the failure of glacier-ice dams are smaller than those from landslide, moraine, and structed earth-fill and rock-fill dam failures. Moraine-dam failures appear to produce some of the largest downstream flood peaks for potential energy at the dam site greater than 1011-1012 joules. Differences in flood peaks natural-dam failures appear to be controlled by dam characteristics and failure mechanisms.

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