Landslides triggered by Hurricane Mitch in Guatemala -- inventory and discussion

Open-File Report 2001-443
By: , and 



The torrential rains that accompanied Hurricane Mitch in October and November of 1998 triggered thousands of landslides in the moderate to steep terrain bordering the Motagua and Polochic Rivers in eastern Guatemala. Using aerial photographs taken between January and March 2000 we mapped all visible landslides larger than about 15 m in minimum dimension in a study area of 10,000 km2 encompassing twenty 1:50,000-scale topographic map quadrangles. Rainfall from Hurricane Mitch was exceptional because it was geographically widespread, prolonged over a period of about a week, moderate to heavy in intensity, and occurred at the end of the rainy season when the ground already had a high moisture content. As documented in this report, this type of rainfall, on saturated or nearly saturated ground, has the capability to trigger both shallow and deep-seated landslides over a large area. We mapped about 11,500 landslides in the study area. The mapped landslides were of two general types: relatively small, translational and rotational landslides that commonly mobilized into debris flows and covered less than several hectares in area (not including flow paths), and large, commonly translational, landslides that sometimes generated debris flows and covered between 15 ha and 25 ha (not including flow paths). The main concentrations of landslides are on moderate-to-steep hillslopes underlain by diverse geologic units. For the purpose of describing the mapped landslides, we divided the study area into five distinct regions based on differing geologic and geomorphic characteristics. These regions include the upper Polochic valley and surrounding highlands, the central Sierra de las Minas, the hills surrounding La Union and Zacapa, the eastern Sierra de las Minas, and the border region with Honduras. All of these areas received between 200 mm and 600 mm of rain over a 13-day period between October 25 and November 6. The highest rainfall amounts (400 mm to 600 mm) occurred in the Upper Polochic valley and surrounding highlands and in the central Sierra de las Minas. The lower rainfall amounts (200 mm to 400 mm) occurred in the hills surrounding La Union, the eastern Sierra de las Minas, and in the border region with Honduras. In general, the rainfall received in these areas is roughly equivalent to the average precipitation received in a 1-year period. We used 10-m digital elevation models (DEMs) generated from contours on two quadrangles in the central Sierra de las Minas to create a map showing areas that were susceptible to landslides during Hurricane Mitch. To create the Hurricane Mitch susceptibility map, we developed a susceptibility threshold equation based on elevation and gradient. The analysis indicates that, at least on two quadrangles, gradients less than 9? were not susceptible to landslides during Hurricane Mitch. The slope of the line defined by the threshold equation indicates that less rainfall was required to initiate landslides on steep gradients than on shallow gradients. Ninety percent of the mapped landslides that were triggered by Hurricane Mitch are within the susceptible zone shown on the map. Eightysix percent of landslides that were mapped as predating Hurricane Mitch, and all landslides mapped as postdating Hurricane Mitch, are within the susceptible zone. We used LAHARZ software to model the potential downstream area affected by debris if a large landslide dam on the Rio La Lima were to fail. The model shows that the area affected would be similar to the area that was affected by a debris flow that mobilized from a large landslide along the Rio La Lima during Hurricane Mitch. The characteristics of rainfall-triggered landslides described in this report can be used as a partial guide to future landslide activity triggered by rainstorms. On the basis of existing data, hazardous areas include: moderate to steep hillslopes and
Publication type Report
Publication Subtype USGS Numbered Series
Title Landslides triggered by Hurricane Mitch in Guatemala -- inventory and discussion
Series title Open-File Report
Series number 2001-443
DOI 10.3133/ofr01443
Edition Version 1.0
Year Published 2001
Language ENGLISH
Description 38 p.
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