Cornwall cliff collapse caught on video

By Phil Plait | October 9, 2011 7:30 am

I’m fascinated by some geological events, including landslides. They happen so rapidly it’s rare to get them on video, but a lucky couple in Cornwall, UK*, were at the right place at just the right time, and caught this amazing footage of several thousand tons of rocks letting go off a cliff face:

Wow! At 12 seconds in, though you can’t see any rock movement, there is a crack in the cliff where debris is getting forced out, falling in a plume. The crack widens, and then WHOOSH!

This was pretty small as slides go (some are longer and move far more slowly). Some are huge, and if they fall into water can cause very, very large tsunamis; for a fun sleep full of nightmares, read up on the Lituya Bay landslide and megatsunami of 1958. Happily, this one in England was far too small to do that sort of thing.

Did you know we see evidence of landslides on Mars and the Moon as well? See the Related posts below, including a couple of shots of avalanches on Mars caught in the act!

And as for the Cornwall slide, I would love to see something like that in person some day… from a nice safe distance. Yowza.

* By coincidence, I just happened to write about Cornwall a few days ago, but that scene was somewhat more bucolic.

Related posts:

Another dose of Martian awesome
Martian avalanche crashes the party
Landslide on Mars triggered by an impact
BREAKING: Martian avalanche caught in the act!
LRO sees a Moonslide

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Cool stuff, Pretty pictures

Comments (47)

  1. I watched a vidoe at the Discovery Channel about what whould happend if half a montain in the Canarias Islands fall to the sea. Apparently the tsunamy produced whould be so big that it whould destroy all the Atlantic coast, including those at Mexico where I live. D=

  2. Chris

    Yikes, I wonder if the authorities knew if the cliff was unstable, otherwise could have had some people just standing on there and that would not have been fun.

  3. SkyGazer

    And there they are standing and videotaping… on the other cliff… and not moving an inch.

  4. Sko Hayes

    SkyGazer- exactly what I was thinking!

  5. MadSciKat =^..^=

    You see the first tiny little puff of dust at 0:09.

    @Chris: They monitor those cliffs pretty closely. At Dartmouth Castle (SW England not far from Cornwall) there’s a stairway going down the cliff. When I was there ~10 years ago the stairway had just been closed because of concern over possible rockslides. I don’t know if they’ve been reopened or not, but I was really disappointed at not being able to go down there.

  6. Starblazer


    I live not far from Cornwall and don’t remember hearing anything about this?! Anyone know when the footage was recorded?


  7. Peebs

    I had heard somewhere that England is slowly crumbling into the sea. The internet being what it is, I can’t find anything to confirm or deny this. At the time I didn’t question the person who said it. Now that I see this, I believe it may be possible that with the passage of time the island will eventually disintegrate into the Atlantic Ocean.

  8. Are they saying “there were people out there”? I can’t imagine there would have been or this would be bigger news, and I didn’t see anyone.

  9. Michelle

    That’s awesome!!
    …I gotta wonder though, why do women scream like that all the time? *sighs* I’m pretty sure I would go “WOAAHHH AWESOME!!!!!” and not “EEEEEE!”

  10. At about 8 seconds in, there’s a segment that falls from near the base of the cliff.

  11. Mark Richards

    “…England is slowly crumbling into the sea. ”

    Not all of it. Only some of the crumblier bits on the east coast — notably Yorkshire (e.g. ) and East Anglia. Parts such as where I’m sitting are built of nice solid rock.

    Britain is a whole is rising in the north and sinking in the south thanks to the continental plate springing back after the glaciers retreated.

  12. Mark Richards

    From the way the guy says, “There it goes” as well as the fact they happened to have a video camera pointing at it, I suspect they were expecting the slide.

  13. Pete Jackson

    There seems to be some dust at the 0:00 still picture, indicating that a smaller slide had just happened. Also, look at the shadows of the photographer and his friends/cowitnesses (and how one of them zips out of the way as the big slide starts); they must have been gathering expecting something to happen.

  14. I’m confused by the fellow saying “there it goes” very early into the event. How did he know something big was happening?

  15. podrock

    And that’s how you make Talus. Beautiful.

    (Tim Minchin tonight at the Boulder Theater!)

  16. Left_Wing_Fox

    @8: I think he said “Quite beautiful, that.”

    @12: If you watch again, you can see several small rockfalls and larger cracks appearing just before each time he says it.

    Spectacular. I was wondering about the resulting tsunami from that, and just how big the collapse would have to be in comparison for a megatsunami event.

  17. margaret carne

    I’ve stood in the same spot as the photographers many times in the last 65 years, always in fear of the land falling away under my feet!!

    This, BTW, is not in England, it is in Cornwall!

  18. JB of Brisbane

    @margaret carne #17 – since when was Cornwall not part of England? Is there some sort of separatist movement there I’m not aware of?

  19. Tom

    @1 – Jorge, I think I saw the same show. Thought of it as I watched that footage.

    Here is the Wikipedia entry:

  20. Wzrd1

    If that were to have happened here in the US, some geniuses would be shooting a Jackass the Avalanche movie on the falling rock face. :/

    Or, knowing how random chance works in my life, I’d be in a boat fishing below…

  21. Scott P.

    “I had heard somewhere that England is slowly crumbling into the sea. The internet being what it is, I can‚Äôt find anything to confirm or deny this.”

    Well, it is in the sense that everywhere that there is not an active volcano is slowly crumbling into the sea.

  22. Jockaira

    @15 Podrock

    That’s also how a lot of really good fossils start.

  23. Shalev

    That’s awesome – and I am glad that no Cornwallians were harmed in the making of this film.

    I noticed that the result of the slide is a kind of fan-shaped formation that looks like it’s mostly made from the upper layers of the surface (pre-slide). Do we see things like that on other planets (say, Mars?)

  24. MattTheTubaGuy

    Reminds me of the Port Hills on the south side of Christchurch, New Zealand.
    In the earthquakes that have happened in the last year, several large chunks have slipped down, causing damage, and unfortunately killing people too. :-(

  25. podrock

    @22 Shalev

    Yes. Talus cones, or piles, are common on Mars. Seen on Venus, too, if I recall. Steep rock is unstable and gravity never sleeps. The general geomorphological term for falling rocks of all kinds is “Mass Wasting”. (Another entry in the lexicon of fun geologic terms.)

  26. Messier Tidy Upper

    Ah, the joys of geomorphology* happening quicker than it usually does and thus being made visible. Great footage. Thanks for sharing this BA. :-)

    Landslides on Mars are common – I studied a one in the Mangala Vallis region with a lobate debris fan for a uni project. :-)

    Given the extreme temperatures I suspect that on Venus rock doesn’t “slide” so much as flow! ūüėČ

    (Mind you, I could well be mistaken on that & am also, natch, referring to current Cytherean circumstances. Previous landslides may have occurred on the planet before Venus grew as hot as today. Wonder if any evidence of old landsldes an be found on its molten surface?


    * The science of how landscapes change over time.

  27. Messier Tidy Upper

    @1. Jorge Laris :

    I watched a video at the Discovery Channel about what would happen if half a montain in the Canarias Islands fall to the sea. Apparently the tsunami produced would be so big that it would destroy all the Atlantic coast, including those at Mexico where I live.

    See :



    Is that Cumbre Vieja / La Palma volcano the one you were thinking of / saw maybe? :-)

  28. RwFlynn

    That, did not look like I expected it to look like (expected more of an iceberg-like slide). But it didn’t take much thought to realize that the water beside an iceberg is much deeper than at the shoreline, the results being a pile of dirt leaning against the remaining cliff, rather than a splash and slow sink to oblivion.

  29. bassmanpete

    Are they saying ‚Äúthere were people out there‚ÄĚ? I can‚Äôt imagine there would have been or this would be bigger news, and I didn‚Äôt see anyone.

    There are people out there. Look to the extreme right of screen and you can see them appear, walking towards the cliff, at 7 seconds in. It looks like they start running towards it once it collapses.

  30. Messier Tidy Upper

    D’oh! I should checked my sources for comment (#25) more carefully. [Blushes] Though the original article on Cumbre Vieja itself seems okay,
    Scrolling further down that first “enterprise mssion hyperquake” link reveals a load of Hoagland~esque woo. Mea culpa. :-(

    A few more – better links for y’all :


    via BBC world news plus this link with a rebuttal of sorts :

    noting :

    The Spanish vulcanist Juan Carlos Carracedo who was first to spot the instability caused by the 1949 cracking was horrified by the sensationalism of the British researchers, stating: ‘The error is modelling a phenomenon when there are no (sic) probabilities of it happening. It is as if one makes a model of what Madrid would look like after an atom bomb explosion. What interest does it have for the general population when the probability is not determined?” Adding ‘In La Palma, there is on-going earthquake monitoring and absolutely no seismic activity has been detected… And retorting Day’s claim of geological proof of the Canaries collapsing in the past, he informs us that. ‘We are talking about a geological timescale, and the last time La Palma slipped was 560,000 years ago !”

    So it seems the Cumbre Vieja thing may just be a beat-up.

  31. sophia8

    JB of Brisbane @19: yes, there is a Cornish separatist movement – fairly small, but vocal. The region is recognised as one of the eight Celtic nations by organisations such as the International Celtic Congress and the main separatist party, Mebyon Kernow, has garnered a respectable number of votes in recent elections.

  32. Controlled demolition. Obviously.

  33. psuedonymous

    I visited Dartmouth fairly regularly until about 6-7 years ago, and the cliffside path had only been closed once (and was open the last time I visited). I think the worry is usually from rocks falling from above onto the path, rather than the path itself subsiding.

  34. Georg

    Will the Cornish be welcome to Little Brittany when
    most of its area will be down the sea?
    Do the french speaking Britons love their english speaking brethren?

  35. Mapnut

    Poor shellfish get no respect. They must have died by the thousands.

  36. Jack Hughes

    Sooner the rest of Cornwall follows the better.

  37. Cool! This reminds me of Carl’s Cliff in John Scalzi’s Fuzzy Nation.
    I would like to see what the nearest seismograph picked up at the time.

  38. Sir Eccles

    Clearly they had charges placed in the cliff, you can just about hear someone say “pull it” in the background at around 8 seconds in. There’s no other way of explaining how it fell so fast.

  39. Ross

    This video of a landslide in Japan was popular a while back:

  40. Nic

    This is now on the BBC News, who suggest this is about 200,000 tons. Also about the guy who filmed it.
    I’m English and good Dr Phil showed me this first! I’ve since found this on YouTube, I think it happened around Sept 23.
    Here’s the Beeb link (same video with a Beeb voiceover)…


  41. Joseph G

    You can’t fool me! You can see the puffs of smoke from demolition charges. The cliff fell straight down. It was an inside job! Either that or the video is FAKE! I can tell from the pixels and from having seen many photoshops videos in my time.

  42. Joseph G

    @38 Sir Eccles: Dammit, you beat me to my tasteless joke by just… over 4 hours.

  43. Andy D

    I live in Cornwall. There are no cliff demolitions here. The collapse is genuine. There are many old abandoned tin mines all over the place and some of these cause land to collapse unexpectedly. There have been cases here where someones back garden suddenly disappears without warning down a 600 ft deep hole . Some of the cliffs are recognised as being likely to collapse and where this is the case there are usually warnings in place to deter people from walking too close. This collapse probably took a while to get going and there were probably a lot of little rock falls and smaller slides preceding it, which the people took note of and probably realising that something was building up, waited to see what it was.

  44. Barbara

    Every seaside cliff is slowly crumbling into the sea ! That’s why I can’t understand why people in CA build houses right on the cliffs.
    there was a small underpinning slide at :03, then :06 and :09

  45. Barbara

    She screams because it’s fun & exciting to express her excitement….

  46. darren

    i live in portreath, less than two miles from there !! i also run a cliff route not half a mile from there and i didnt find out about it till last night lololol good job i ran at the gym this week !!ps jack hughes is a knob !


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