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Angel Falls in Venezuela is the world's tallest at 979 m (3,212 ft).

A waterfall is a place where water flows over a vertical drop or a series of steep drops in the course of a stream or river. Waterfalls also occur where meltwater drops over the edge of a tabular iceberg or ice shelf.


Formation of a waterfall

Waterfalls are commonly formed in the upper course of a river[1] in steep mountains. Because of their landscape position, many waterfalls occur over bedrock fed by little contributing area, so they are ephemeral and only occur during rainstorms. The further downstream, the more perennial a waterfall can be. It is even possible for waterfalls to occur far downstream due to transient discontinuities in a river's longitudinal profile caused by climatic changes and anthropogenic activities.[clarification needed] Waterfalls can have a wide range of widths and depths, and this diversity is part of what makes them such a charismatic and interesting natural phenomenon. Research into the diversity of natural waterfalls systematics has been carried out in recent years.[2][3]

When the river courses over resistant bedrock, erosion happens slowly and is dominated by impacts of water-borne sediment on the rock, while downstream the erosion occurs more rapidly.[1][4] As the watercourse increases its velocity at the edge of the waterfall, it may pluck material from the riverbed, if the bed is fractured or otherwise more erodable. Hydraulic jets and hydraulic jumps at the toe of a falls can generate large forces to erode the bed[5], especially when forces are amplified by water-borne sediment. Horseshoe-shaped falls focus the erosion to a central point, also enhancing riverbed change below a waterfalls[6]. A process known as "potholing" involves local erosion of a potentially deep hole in bedrock due to turbulent whirlpools spinning stones around on the bed, drilling it out. Sand and stones carried by the watercourse therefore increase erosion capacity.[1] This causes the waterfall to carve deeper into the bed and to recede upstream. Often over time, the waterfall will recede back to form a canyon or gorge downstream as it recedes upstream, and it will carve deeper into the ridge above it.[7] The rate of retreat for a waterfall can be as high as one and half meters per year.[1]

Often, the rock stratum just below the more resistant shelf will be of a softer type, meaning that undercutting due to splashback will occur here to form a shallow cave-like formation known as a rock shelter under and behind the waterfall. Eventually, the outcropping, more resistant cap rock will collapse under pressure to add blocks of rock to the base of the waterfall. These blocks of rock are then broken down into smaller boulders by attrition as they collide with each other, and they also erode the base of the waterfall by abrasion, creating a deep plunge pool in the gorge downstream.

Streams can become wider and shallower just above waterfalls due to flowing over the rock shelf, and there is usually a deep area just below the waterfall because of the kinetic energy of the water hitting the bottom. However, a study of waterfalls systematics reported that waterfalls can be wider or narrower above or below a falls, so almost anything is possible given the right geological and hydrological setting.[3] Waterfalls normally form in a rocky area due to erosion. After a long period of being fully formed, the water falling off the ledge will retreat, causing a horizontal pit parallel to the waterfall wall. Eventually, as the pit grows deeper, the waterfall collapses to be replaced by a steeply sloping stretch of river bed.[1] In addition to gradual processes such as erosion, earth movement caused by earthquakes or landslides or volcanoes can cause a differential in land heights which interfere with the natural course of a water flow, and result in waterfalls.

A river sometimes flows over a large step in the rocks that may have been formed by a fault line. Waterfalls can occur along the edge of a glacial trough, where a stream or river flowing into a glacier continues to flow into a valley after the glacier has receded or melted. The large waterfalls in Yosemite Valley are examples of this phenomenon, which is referred to as a hanging valley. Another reason hanging valleys may form is where two rivers join and one is flowing faster than the other.[1] Waterfalls can be grouped into ten broad classes based on the average volume of water present on the fall (which depends on both the waterfall's average flow and its height) using a logarithmic scale. Class 10 waterfalls include Niagara Falls, Paulo Afonso Falls and Khone Falls.

Aerial view of Victoria Falls on the Zambezi River in southern Africa. The cloud formed by the mist created by the waterfall is called cataractagenitus.[8]

Classes of other well-known waterfalls include Victoria Falls and Kaieteur Falls (Class 9); Rhine Falls and Gullfoss (Class 8); Angel Falls and Dettifoss (Class 7); Yosemite Falls, Lower Yellowstone Falls and Umphang Thee Lor Sue Waterfall (Class 6); Sutherland Falls (Class 5).[9]


Alexander von Humboldt (1820's) "Father of Modern Geography" Humboldt was mostly marking waterfalls on maps for river navigation purposes.

Oscar von Engeln (1930's) Published "Geomorphology: systematic and regional", this book had a whole chapter devoted to waterfalls, and is one of the earliest examples of published works on waterfalls.

R.W. Young (1980's) Wrote "Waterfalls: form and process" this work made waterfalls a much more serious topic for research for modern Geoscientists.[10]


  • Ledge waterfall: Water descends vertically over a vertical cliff, maintaining partial contact with the bedrock.[11]
    • Block/Sheet: Water descends from a relatively wide stream or river.[4][11]
    • Classical: Ledge waterfalls where fall height is nearly equal to stream width, forming a vertical square shape.[4]
    • Curtain: Ledge waterfalls which descend over a height larger than the width of falling water stream.[4]
  • Plunge: Fast moving water descends vertically, losing complete contact with the bedrock surface.[11] The contact is typically lost due to horizontal thrust of the water before it falls. It always starts from a narrow stream.
    • Punchbowl: Water descends in a constricted form and then spreads out in a wider pool.[11]
  • Horsetail: Descending water maintains contact with bedrock most of the time.[11]
    • Slide: Water glides down maintaining continuous contact.[11]
    • Ribbon: Water descends over a long narrow strip.[11]
    • Chute: A large quantity of water forced through a narrow, vertical passage.[11]
    • Fan: Water spreads horizontally as it descends while remaining in contact with bedrock.[11]
  • Cascade: Water descends a series of rock steps.[4][11]
  • Tiered/Multi-step/Staircase: A series of waterfalls one after another of roughly the same size each with its own sunken plunge pool.[11]
  • Cataract: A large, powerful waterfall.[11]
  • Segmented: Distinctly separate flows of water form as it descends.[11]
  • Catadupa: A cataract or waterfall, originally those of the Nile. The term catadupae refers to people inhabiting near such cataracts; there are suppositions that these people are deaf due to the constant din.[12]
  • Frozen: Any waterfall which has some element of ice or snow.[11]
  • Moulin: A moulin is a waterfall in a glacier


Significant waterfalls,[13] listed alphabetically:

Staubbach Fall, a 297 m (974 ft) waterfall in Switzerland

Image gallery

See also


  1. ^ a b c d e f Carreck, Rosalind, ed. (1982). The Family Encyclopedia of Natural History. The Hamlyn Publishing Group. pp. 246–248. ISBN 0711202257. 
  2. ^ "Dr. Gregory B. Pasternack - Watershed Hydrology, Geomorphology, and Ecohydraulics :: Waterfalls". pasternack.ucdavis.edu. Retrieved 2017-06-11. 
  3. ^ a b Wyrick, Joshua R.; Pasternack, Gregory B. (2008-09-01). "Modeling energy dissipation and hydraulic jump regime responses to channel nonuniformity at river steps". Journal of Geophysical Research: Earth Surface. 113 (F3): F03003. ISSN 2156-2202. doi:10.1029/2007jf000873. 
  4. ^ a b c d e "Adventure". 16 June 2008. Retrieved 10 November 2016. 
  5. ^ Pasternack, Gregory B.; Ellis, Christopher R.; Marr, Jeffrey D. (2007-07-01). "Jet and hydraulic jump near-bed stresses below a horseshoe waterfall". Water Resources Research. 43 (7): W07449. ISSN 1944-7973. doi:10.1029/2006wr005774. 
  6. ^ "Dr. Gregory B. Pasternack - Watershed Hydrology, Geomorphology, and Ecohydraulics :: Horseshoe Falls". pasternack.ucdavis.edu. Retrieved 2017-06-11. 
  7. ^ "Observe river erosion creating waterfalls and chasms.". Retrieved 10 November 2016. 
  8. ^ Sutherland, Scott (March 23, 2017). "Cloud Atlas leaps into 21st century with 12 new cloud types". The Weather Network. Pelmorex Media. Retrieved 24 March 2017. 
  9. ^ Richard H. Beisel Jr., International Waterfall Classification System, Outskirts Press, 2006 ISBN 1-59800-340-2
  10. ^ Hudson, B. J. (2013) Waterfalls, science and aesthetics
  11. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m n "Worldwaterfalls.com". Retrieved 10 November 2016. 
  12. ^  This article incorporates text from a publication now in the public domainChambers, Ephraim, ed. (1728). "Catadupa". Cyclopædia, or an Universal Dictionary of Arts and Sciences (first ed.). James and John Knapton, et al. p. 169. 
  13. ^ "World Waterfall Database - The webs most authoritative source about Waterfalls". Retrieved 10 November 2016. 
  14. ^ "Falls of Lora Information" The Falls of Lora. Retrieved 18 Sept 2011.
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