A waterfall is a steep descent of a river or other body of water over a rocky ledge.


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Earth Science, Geology, Geography, Physical Geography

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A waterfall is a river or other body of water's steep fall over a rocky ledge into a plunge pool below. Waterfalls are also called cascades.

The process of erosion, the wearing away of earth, plays an important part in the formation of waterfalls. Waterfalls themselves also contribute to erosion.

Often, waterfalls form as streams flow from soft rock to hard rock. This happens both laterally (as a stream flows across the earth) and vertically (as the stream drops in a waterfall). In both cases, the soft rock erodes, leaving a hard ledge over which the stream falls.

A fall line is the imaginary line along which parallel rivers plunge as they flow from uplands to lowlands. Many waterfalls in an area help geologists and hydrologists determine a region's fall line and underlying rock structure.

As a stream flows, it carries sediment. The sediment can be microscopic silt, pebbles, or even boulders. Sediment can erode stream beds made of soft rock, such as sandstone or limestone. Eventually, the stream's channel cuts so deep into the stream bed that only a harder rock, such as granite, remains. Waterfalls develop as these granite formations form cliffs and ledges.

A stream's velocity increases as it nears a waterfall, increasing the amount of erosion taking place. The movement of water at the top of a waterfall can erode rocks to be very flat and smooth. Rushing water and sediment topple over the waterfall, eroding the plunge pool at the base. The crashing flow of the water may also create powerful whirlpools that erode the rock of the plunge pool beneath them.

The resulting erosion at the base of a waterfall can be very dramatic, and cause the waterfall to "recede." The area behind the waterfall is worn away, creating a hollow, cave-like structure called a "rock shelter." Eventually, the rocky ledge (called the outcropping) may tumble down, sending boulders into the stream bed and plunge pool below. This causes the waterfall to "recede" many meters upstream. The waterfall erosion process starts again, breaking down the boulders of the former outcropping.

Erosion is just one process that can form waterfalls. A waterfall may form across a fault, or crack in the Earth’s surface. An earthquake, landslide, glacier, or volcano may also disrupt stream beds and help create waterfalls.

Classifying Waterfalls

There is not a standard way to classify waterfalls. Some scientists classify waterfalls based on the average volume of water in the waterfall. A Class 10 waterfall using this scale is Inga Falls, Democratic Republic of Congo, where the Congo River twists in a series of rapids. The estimated volume of water discharged from Inga Falls is 25,768 cubic meters per second (910,000 cubic feet per second).

Another popular way of classifying waterfalls is by width. One of the widest waterfalls is Khone Phapheng Falls, Laos. At the Khone Phapheng Falls, the Mekong River flows through a succession of relatively shallow rapids. The width of the Khone Phapheng Falls is about 10,783 meters (35,376 feet).

Waterfalls are also classified by height. Angel Falls, the world’s tallest waterfall, plummets 979 meters (3,212 feet) into a remote canyon in a rain forest in Venezuela. The water, from the Gauja River, often does not reach the bottom. The fall is so long, and so steep, that air pressure is stronger often than the water pressure of the falls. The water is turned to mist before it reaches the small tributary below.

Types of Waterfalls

One of the most popular, if least scientific, ways to classify waterfalls is by type. A waterfall's type is simply the way the descends. Most waterfalls fit more than one category.

A block waterfall descends from a wide stream. Niagara Falls, in the United States and Canada, is a block waterfall on the Niagara River.

A cascade is a waterfall that descends over a series of rock steps. Monkey Falls, in the Indira Gandhi Wildlife Sanctuary and National Park in Tamil Nadu, India, is a gently sloping cascade. The waterfall is safe enough for children to play in the water.

A cataract is a powerful, even dangerous, waterfall. Among the widest and wildest of cataracts are the thundering waters of the Iguazu River on the border between Brazil and Argentina.

A chute is a waterfall in which the stream passage is very narrow, forcing water through at unusually high pressure. Three Chute Falls is named for the three "chutes" through which the Tenaya Creek falls in Yosemite National Park, California, U.S.

Fan waterfalls are named for their shape. Water spreads out horizontally as it descends. Virgin Falls is a striking fan waterfall on Tofino Creek, on Vancouver Island, British Columbia, Canada.

Frozen waterfalls are just what they sound like. For at least part of the year, the waterfall freezes. Mountaineers often climb frozen waterfalls as a challenging test of their skill. The Fang is a single pillar of ice in Vail, Colorado, U.S., that vertically plunges more than 30 meters (100 feet).

Horsetail waterfalls maintain contact with the hard rock that underlies them. Reichenbach Falls, a fall on the Reichenbach Stream in Switzerland, is a horsetail waterfall where legendary detective Sherlock Holmes allegedly fell to his doom.

Multi-step waterfalls are a series of connected waterfalls, each with their own plunge pool. The breathtaking "falling lakes" of Plitvice Lakes National Park, Croatia, are a series of multi-step waterfalls.

Plunge waterfalls, unlike horsetail falls, lose contact with the hard rock. The tallest waterfall in Japan, Hannoki Falls, is a plunge waterfall that stands 497 meters (1,640 feet). Hannoki Falls is seasonally fed by snowmelt from the Tateyama Mountains.

Punchbowl waterfalls are characterized by wide pools at their base. Wailua Falls is a punchbowl waterfall on the island of Kauai, Hawai'i, U.S. Although the plunge pool is tranquil and popular for swimming, the area around Wailua Falls itself is dangerous.

The water flowing over segmented waterfalls separate as distinct streams. Huge outcroppings of hard rock separate the streams of Nigretta Falls, a segmented waterfall in Victoria, Australia, before they meet in a large plunge pool.

Case Study: Niagara Falls

The Niagara River has two falls, one in the U.S. state of New York and one in the province of Ontario, Canada. Each waterfall is less than 60 meters (200 feet) tall, but together they are more than a kilometer (0.62 miles) wide.

Niagara and many other falls with large volumes of water are used to generate hydroelectric power. A tremendous volume of water flows over Niagara Falls, as much as 5,525 cubic meters (195,000 cubic feet) per second. Power stations upstream from the falls convert hydroelectric energy into electricity for residential and commercial use.

The U.S. and Canadian governments manage the Niagara River so carefully that it is possible for either country to "turn off" the falls. This is done at night, so as not to disturb the tourism industry, and the falls are never actually turned off, just slowed down. Water is diverted to canals and reservoirs, and the decreased flow allows engineers to check for erosion and other damage on the falls. U.S. and Canadian authorities also work together to ensure Niagara Falls doesn’t freeze in the winter, which would threaten power production.

Because waterfalls are barriers to navigation, canals are sometimes built to get around them. Niagara Falls prevents passage between Lake Erie and Lake Ontario on the Niagara River. In the 19th century, the Welland Canal was built to make passage between the two Great Lakes possible.

Fast Fact

Because waterfalls are so dramatic and dangerous, thrill-seekers like to perform stunts or events on or around them. People cross waterfalls on tightropes, in canoes, and even in barrels, which provide more protection. Many of these stunts, such as jet-skiing over Niagara Falls, do not go off as planned, and many daredevils have plunged to their deaths. Only two people are known to have survived a plunge from Niagara Falls without any protection. Those two men sustained serious injuries.

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Jeannie Evers, Emdash Editing, Emdash Editing
National Geographic Society
Last Updated

October 19, 2023

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