An escarpment is an area of the Earth where elevation changes suddenly.


5 - 12+


Earth Science, Geology, Geography, Physical Geography

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Morgan Stanley

An escarpment is an area of the Earth where elevation changes suddenly. Escarpment usually refers to the bottom of a cliff or a steep slope. (Scarp refers to the cliff itself.)

Escarpments separate two level land surfaces. For example, an escarpment could be the area separating the lower parts of the coast from higher plateaus. An escarpment also usually indicates two different types of land, such as the area on a rocky beach where tall cliffs become rocky sand.

One side of an escarpment could be rock from one geologic era, while the other side of the escarpment could be rock from a different geologic era.

Escarpments are formed by one of two processes: erosion and faulting.

Erosion creates an escarpment by wearing away rock through wind or water. One side of an escarpment may be eroded more than the other side. The result of this unequal erosion is a transition zone from one type of sedimentary rock to another. One example is the Niagara Escarpment, which runs in an arc from the U.S. state of New York, through the Canadian province of Ontario, and down to the U.S. state of Illinois. All along the Niagara Escarpment, hard, resistant rock sat on top of soft rock. As wind and water eroded the soft rock underneath, the hard rock tumbled down, creating cliffs and escarpments. The most dramatic example of this unequal erosion is the waterfalls at Niagara Falls.

The other process by which escarpments are formed is faulting. Faulting is movement of the Earths top layer, or crust, along a crack called a fault. The same process often results in earthquakes. Faulting creates escarpments as it moves pieces of the Earth around. The Elgeyo Escarpment, part of Kenyas Great Rift Valley, was formed by faulting millions of years ago. The faulting that resulted in the Elgeyo Escarpment turned seabeds into nearly vertical cliffs.

Escarpments are found on every continent, even Antarctica.

Fast Fact

Earth isn't the only place on which you'll find escarpments. Rupes, created by faulting, erosion, or the impact of a meteorite, are escarpments on other planets or moons. Rupes is the Latin word for cliff. There are rupes on Mercury, Mars, our own moon, and the rocky moons of other planets.

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National Geographic Society
Last Updated

October 19, 2023

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