A mudflow, also known as mudslide or mud flow, is a form of mass wasting involving fast-moving flow of debris and dirt that has become liquified by the addition of water.[1] Such flows can move at speeds ranging from 3 meters/minute to 5 meters/second.[2] Mudflows contain a significant proportion of clay, which makes them more fluid than debris flows, allowing them to travel farther and across lower slope angles. Both types of flow are generally mixtures of particles with a wide range of sizes, which typically become sorted by size upon deposition.[3]

Mailboxes caught in a mudflow following the May 1980 Mount St. Helens volcanic eruption.

Mudflows are often called mudslips, a term applied indiscriminately by the mass media to a variety of mass wasting events.[4] Mudflows often start as slides, becoming flows as water is entrained along the flow path; such events are often called mud failures.[5]

Other types of mudflows include lahars (involving fine-grained pyroclastic deposits on the flanks of volcanoes) and jökulhlaups (outbursts from under glaciers or icecaps).[6]

A statutory definition of "flood-related mudslide" appears in the United States' National Flood Insurance Act of 1968, as amended, codified at 42 USC Sections 4001 and following.

Triggering of mudflows

The Mameyes mudflow disaster, in barrio Tibes, Ponce, Puerto Rico, was caused by heavy rainfall from Tropical Storm Isabel in 1985. The mudflow destroyed more than 100 homes and claimed an estimated 300 lives.

Heavy rainfall, snowmelt, or high levels of groundwater flowing through cracked bedrock may trigger a movement of soil or sediments in landslides that continue as mudflows. Floods and debris flows may also occur when strong rains on hill or mountain slopes cause extensive erosion and/or mobilize loose sediment that is located in steep mountain channels. The 2006 Sidoarjo mud flow may have been caused by rogue drilling.

The point where a muddy material begins to flow depends on its grain size, the water content, and the slope of the topography. Fine grained material like mud or sand can be mobilized by shallower flows than a coarse sediment or a debris flow. Higher water content (higher precipitation/overland flow) also increases the potential to initiate a mudflow.[7]

After a mudflow forms, coarser sediment may be picked up by the flow. Coarser sediment picked up by the flow often forms the front of a mudflow surge and is pushed by finer sediment and water that pools up behind the coarse-grained moving mudflow-front.[8] Mudflows may contain multiple surges of material as the flow scours channels and destabilizes adjacent hillslopes (potentially nucleating new mudflows).[9] Mudflows have mobilized boulders 1–10 m across in mountain settings.[10]

Some broad mudflows are rather viscous and therefore slow; others begin very quickly and continue like an avalanche. They are composed of at least 50% silt and clay-sized materials and up to 30% water. Because mudflows mobilize a significant amount of sediment, mudflows have higher flow heights than a clear water flood for the same water discharge. Also, sediment within the mudflow increases granular friction within the flow structure of the flow relative to clear water floods, which raises the flow depth for the same water discharge.[11] Difficulty predicting the amount and type of sediment that will be included in a mudflow makes it much more challenging to forecast and engineer structures to protect against mudflow hazards compared to clear water flood hazards.

Mudflows are common even in the hills around Los Angeles, California, where they have destroyed many homes built on hillsides without sufficient support after fires destroy vegetation holding the land.

On 14 December 1999 in Vargas, Venezuela, a mudflow known as The Vargas tragedy significantly altered more than 60 kilometers (37 mi) of the coastline. It was triggered by heavy rainfall and caused estimated damages of US$1.79 to US$3.5 billion, killed between 10,000 and 30,000 people, forced 85,000 people to evacuate, and led to the complete collapse of the state's infrastructure.

Mudflows and landslides

Landslide is a more general term than mudflow. It refers to the gravity-driven failure and subsequent movement downslope of any types of surface movement of soil, rock, or other debris. The term incorporates earth slides, rock falls, flows, and mudslides, amongst other categories of hillslope mass movements.[12] They do not have to be as fluid as a mudflow.

Mudflows can be caused by unusually heavy rains or a sudden thaw. They consist mainly of mud and water plus fragments of rock and other debris, so they often behave like floods. They can move houses off their foundations or bury a place within minutes because of incredibly strong currents.

Mudflow geography

When a mudflow occurs it is given four named areas, the 'main scarp', in bigger mudflows the 'upper and lower shelves' and the 'toe'. The main scarp will be the original area of incidence, the toe is the last affected area(s). The upper and lower shelves are located wherever there is a large dip (due to mountain or natural drop) in the mudflow's path. A mudflow can have many shelves.

Largest recorded mudflow

The world's largest historic subareal (on land) landslide occurred during the 1980 eruption of Mount St. Helens, a volcano in the Cascade Mountain Range in the State of Washington, USA[13] The volume of material displaced was 2.8 km3 (0.67 cu mi).[14] Directly in the path of the huge mudflow was Spirit Lake. Normally a chilly 5 °C (41 °F), the lahar instantly raised the temperature to near 38 °C (100 °F). Today the bottom of Spirit Lake is 100 ft (30 m) above the original surface, and it has two and a half times more surface area than it did before the eruption.

The largest known of all prehistoric landslides was an enormous submarine landslide that disintegrated 60,000 years ago and produced the longest flow of sand and mud yet documented on Earth. The massive submarine flow travelled 1,500 km (930 mi) – the distance from London to Rome.[15][16]

By volume, the largest submarine landslide (the Agulhas slide off South Africa) occurred approximately 2.6 million years ago. The volume of the slide was 20,000 km3 (4,800 cu mi).[17]

Areas at risk

The area most generally recognized as being at risk of a dangerous mudflow are:

  • Areas where wildfires or human modification of the land have destroyed vegetation
  • Areas where landslides have occurred before
  • Steep slopes and areas at the bottom of slopes or canyons
  • Slopes that have been altered for construction of buildings and roads
  • Channels along streams and rivers
  • Areas where surface runoff is directed

See also

  • Quick clay, also known as Leda clay
  • Osceola Mudflow, occurred on Mt. Rainier's White River drainage.



  • Dingle, R. V. (December 1977). "The anatomy of a large submarine slump on a sheared continental margin (SE Africa)". Journal of the Geological Society. 134 (3): 293–310. Bibcode:1977JGSoc.134..293D. doi:10.1144/gsjgs.134.3.0293. S2CID 129229469.
  • Fletcher, Lara; Hungr, Oldrich; Evans, S G (1 February 2002). "Contrasting failure behaviour of two large landslides in clay and silt". Canadian Geotechnical Journal. 39 (1): 46–62. doi:10.1139/t01-079.
  • Hungr, Oldrich; Leroueil, Serge; Picarelli, Luciano (1 April 2014), "The Varnes classification of landslide types, an update", Landslides, 11 (2): 167–194, doi:10.1007/s10346-013-0436-y, S2CID 38328696, archived from the original on 27 July 2014, retrieved 16 July 2014. On-line publication 30 November 2013.
  • Hungr, Oldrich; Leroueil, Serge; Picarelli, Luciano (4 January 2013), The Varnes classification of landslide types, an update. Draft of Hungr, Leroueil & Picarelli 2014, with page numbers.
  • Iverson, RM; Reid, ME; LaHusen, RG (May 1997). "Debris-flow mobilization from landslides". Annual Review of Earth and Planetary Sciences. 25 (1): 85–138. Bibcode:1997AREPS..25...85I. doi:10.1146/
  • Kean, Jason W.; McCoy, Scott W.; Tucker, Gregory E.; Staley, Dennis M.; Coe, Jeffrey A. (December 2013). "Runoff-generated debris flows: Observations and modeling of surge initiation, magnitude, and frequency: RUNOFF-GENERATED DEBRIS FLOWS". Journal of Geophysical Research: Earth Surface. 118 (4): 2190–2207. doi:10.1002/jgrf.20148. S2CID 130762677.
  • Kean, Jason W.; Staley, Dennis M.; Cannon, Susan H. (5 November 2011). "In situ measurements of post-fire debris flows in southern California: Comparisons of the timing and magnitude of 24 debris-flow events with rainfall and soil moisture conditions". Journal of Geophysical Research. 116 (F4): F04019. Bibcode:2011JGRF..116.4019K. doi:10.1029/2011JF002005.
  • Stock, J. D.; Dietrich, W. E. (1 September 2006). "Erosion of steepland valleys by debris flows". Geological Society of America Bulletin. 118 (9–10): 1125–1148. Bibcode:2006GSAB..118.1125S. doi:10.1130/B25902.1.
  • Talling, P. J.; Wynn, R. B.; Masson, D. G.; Frenz, M.; Cronin, B. T.; Schiebel, R.; Akhmetzhanov, A. M.; Dallmeier-Tiessen, S.; Benetti, S.; Weaver, P. P. E.; Georgiopoulou, A.; Zühlsdorff, C.; Amy, L. A. (November 2007). "Onset of submarine debris flow deposition far from original giant landslide". Nature. 450 (7169): 541–544. Bibcode:2007Natur.450..541T. doi:10.1038/nature06313. PMID 18033295. S2CID 4373921.

Further reading

  • Hungr, Oldirch; Evans, S. G.; Bovis, M. J.; Hutchinson, J. N. (August 2001), "A review of the classification of landslides of the flow type", Environmental & Engineering Geoscience, 7 (3): 221–238, doi:10.2113/gseegeosci.7.3.221.
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