Size distribution of submarine landslides along the U.S. Atlantic margin Academic Article uri icon


  • Assessment of the probability for destructive landslide-generated tsunamis depends on the knowledge of the number, size, and frequency of large submarine landslides. This paper investigates the size distribution of submarine landslides along the U.S. Atlantic continental slope and rise using the size of the landslide source regions (landslide failure scars). Landslide scars along the margin identified in a detailed bathymetric Digital Elevation Model (DEM) have areas that range between 0.89 km super(2) and 2410 km super(2) and volumes between 0.002 km super(3) and 179 km super(3). The area to volume relationship of these failure scars is almost linear (inverse power-law exponent close to 1), suggesting a fairly uniform failure thickness of a few 10s of meters in each event, with only rare, deep excavating landslides. The cumulative volume distribution of the failure scars is very well described by a log-normal distribution rather than by an inverse power-law, the most commonly used distribution for both subaerial and submarine landslides. A log-normal distribution centered on a volume of 0.86 km super(3) may indicate that landslides preferentially mobilize a moderate amount of material (on the order of 1 km super(3)), rather than large landslides or very small ones. Alternatively, the log-normal distribution may reflect an inverse power law distribution modified by a size-dependent probability of observing landslide scars in the bathymetry data. If the latter is the case, an inverse power-law distribution with an exponent of 1.3+/-0.3, modified by a size-dependent conditional probability of identifying more failure scars with increasing landslide size, fits the observed size distribution. This exponent value is similar to the predicted exponent of 1.2+/-0.3 for subaerial landslides in unconsolidated material. Both the log-normal and modified inverse power-law distributions of the observed failure scar volumes suggest that large landslides, which have the greatest potential to generate damaging tsunamis, occur infrequently along the margin.

publication date

  • August 2009