Cassini image of a landslide on Iapetus
Landslides can wreak enormous destruction, especially when they travel farther than expected. When an avalanche occurs, dirt both falls vertically and spreads horizontally, with the horizontal distance usually no more than twice the vertical drop. But in a sturzstrom, some unknown factor decreases the coefficient of friction, allowing the earth to slide much farther; it acts more like a glacier or a lava flow than a regular avalanche. Theories about that friction-reducing factor abound—trapped air, water, or mud, pressure, rubbed and heated rock becoming more slippery, rock nanoparticles, sound waves, changes in local gravity—but its true nature is still unknown. By examining sturzstroms that occur on distant planets and moons—whose forces of gravity, atmospheres, fluids, and soil differ from those on Earth—researchers hope to unravel the factors that contribute to a landslide’s length. This information could help us predict landslides’ shapes and alleviate the damage they cause.