A landslide dam or barrier lake is a natural damming of a river by some kind of landslides, such as debris flows and rock avalanches, or by volcanic eruptions. If the damming landslides are caused by an earthquake, it may also be called a quake lake. Some landslide dams are as high as the largest existing artificial dam.
The major causes for landslide dams investigated by 1986 are landslides from excessive precipitation and earthquakes, which account for 84%. Volcanic eruptions account for a further 7% of dams. Other causes of landslides account for the remaining 9%.
Because of their rather loose nature and absence of controlled spillway, landslide dams frequently fail catastrophically and lead to downstream flooding, often with high casualties. A common failure scenario is overflowing with subsequent dam breach and erosion by the overflow stream.
Landslide dams are responsible for two types of flooding: backflooding (upstream flooding) upon creation and downstream flooding upon failure. Compared with catastrophic downflooding, relative slow backflooding typically presents little life hazard, but property damage can be substantial.
While the dam is being filled, the surrounding groundwater level rises. The dam failure may trigger further catastrophic processes. As the water level rapidly drops, the uncompensated groundwater hydraulic pressure may initiate additional landslides. Those that fall into the dam reservoir may lead to further catastrophic spillages. Moreover, the resulting flood may undercut the sides of the river valley to further produce landslides downstream.
Construction engineers responsible for design of artificial dams and other structures in river valleys must take into account the potential of such events leading to abrupt changes in river's regimen.