Liquefaction is not a type of ground failure; it is a physical process that takes place during some earthquakes that may lead to ground failure. As a consequence of liquefaction, clay-free soil deposits, primarily sands and silts, temporarily lose strength and behave as viscous fluids rather than as solids. Liquefaction takes place when seismic shear waves pass through a saturated granular soil layer, distort its granular structure, and cause some of the void spaces to collapse. Disruptions to the soil generated by these collapses cause transfer of the ground-shaking load from grain-to-grain contacts in the soil layer to the pore water. This transfer of load increases pressure in the pore water, either causing drainage to occur or, if drainage is restricted, a sudden buildup of pore-water pressure. When the pore-water pressure rises to about the pressure caused by the weight of the column of soil, the granular soil layer behaves like a fluid rather than like a solid for a short period. In this condition, deformations can occur easily.
Liquefaction is restricted to certain geologic and hydrologic environments, mainly areas where sands and silts were deposited in the last 10,000 years and where ground water is within 30 feet of the surface. Generally, the younger and looser the sediment and the higher the water table, the more susceptible a soil is to liquefaction.