Landslides from the February 4, 1976, Guatemala earthquake

Professional Paper 1204-A

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The M (Richter magnitude) = 7.5 Guatemala earthquake of February 4, 1976, generated more than 10,000 landslides throughout an area of approximately 16,000 km2. These landslides caused hundreds of fatalities as well as extensive property damage. Landslides disrupted both highways and the railroad system and thus severely hindered early rescue efforts. In Guatemala City, extensive property damage and loss of life were due to ground failure beneath dwellings built too close to the edges of steeply incised canyons. We have recorded the distribution of landslides from this earthquake by mapping individual slides at a scale of 1:50,000 for most of the landslide-affected area, using high-altitude aerial photography. The highest density of landslides was in the highlands west of Guatemala City. The predominant types of earthquake-triggered landslides were rock falls and debris slides of less than 15,000 m3 volume; in addition to these smaller landslides, 11 large landslides had volumes of more than 100,000 m3. Several of these large landslides posed special hazards to people and property from lakes impounded by the landslide debris and from the ensuing floods that occurred upon breaching and rapid erosion of the debris. The regional landslide distribution was observed to depend on five major factors: (1) seismic intensity; (2) lithology: 90 percent of all landslides were within Pleistocene pumice deposits; (3) slope steepness; (4) topographic amplification of seismic ground motion; and (5) regional fractures. The presence of preearthquake landslides had no apparent effect on the landslide distribution, and landslide concentration in the Guatemala City area does not correlate with local seismic-intensity data. The landslide concentration, examined at this scale, appears to be governed mainly by lithologic differences within the pumice deposits, preexisting fractures, and amplification of ground motion by topography-all factors related to site conditions.

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USGS Numbered Series
Landslides from the February 4, 1976, Guatemala earthquake
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Professional Paper
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U.S. G.P.O. : for sale by the Branch of Distribution, U.S. Geological Survey,
35 p.; 2 plates in pocket