A canyon is a deep, narrow valley with steep sides. “Canyon” comes from the Spanish word cañon, which means “tube” or “pipe.” The term “gorge” is often used to mean “canyon,” but a gorge is almost always steeper and narrower than a canyon.
The movement of rivers, the processes of weathering and erosion, and tectonic activity create canyons.
The most familiar type of canyon is probably the river canyon. The water pressure of a river can cut deep into a river bed. Sediments from the river bed are carried downstream, creating a deep, narrow channel.
Rivers that lie at the bottom of deep canyons are known as entrenched rivers. They are entrenched because, unlike rivers in wide, flat flood plains, they do not meander and change their course.
The Yarlung Zangbo Grand Canyon in Tibet, a region of southwestern China, was formed over millions of years by the Yarlung Zangbo River. This canyon is the deepest in the world—at some points extending more than 5,300 meters (17,490 feet) from top to bottom. Yarlung Zangbo Canyon is also one of the world’s longest canyons, at about 500 kilometers (310 miles).
Weathering and Erosion
Weathering and erosion also contribute to the formation of canyons. In winter, water seeps into cracks in the rock. This water freezes. As water freezes, it expands and turns into ice. Ice forces the cracks to become larger and larger, eroding bits of stone in the process. During brief, heavy rains, water rushes down the cracks, eroding even more rocks and stone. As more rocks crumble and fall, the canyon grows wider at the top than at the bottom.
When this process happens in soft rock, such as sandstone, it can lead to the development of slot canyons. Slot canyons are very narrow and deep. Sometimes, a slot canyon can be less than a meter (3 feet) wide, but hundreds of meters deep. Slot canyons can be dangerous. Their sides are usually very smooth and difficult to climb.
Some canyons with hard, underlying rock may develop cliffs and ledges after their softer, surface rock erodes. These ledges look like giant steps.
Sometimes, entire civilizations can develop on and around these canyon ledges. Native American nations, such as the Hopi and Sinagua, made cliff dwellings. Cliff dwellings were apartment-style shelters that housed hundreds of people. The shaded, elevated ledges in Walnut Canyon and Canyon de Chelly, in Arizona, provided protection from hostile neighbors and the burning desert sun.
Hard-rock canyons that are open at one end are called box canyons. The Hopi and Navajo people often used box canyons as natural corrals for sheep and cattle. They simply built a gate on the open side of the box canyon, and closed it when the animals were inside.
Limestone is a type of hard rock often found in canyons. Sometimes, limestone erodes and forms caves beneath the earth. As the ceilings of these caves collapse, canyons form. The Yorkshire Dales, an area in northern England, is a collection of river valleys and canyons created by limestone cave collapses.
Canyons are also formed by tectonic activity. As tectonic plates beneath the Earth’s crust shift and collide, their movement can change the area’s landscape. Sometimes, tectonic activity causes an area of the Earth’s crust to rise higher than the surrounding land. This process is called tectonic uplift. Tectonic uplift can create plateaus and mountains. Rivers and glaciers that cut through these elevated areas of land create deep canyons.
The Grand Canyon, in the U.S. state of Arizona, is a product of tectonic uplift. The Grand Canyon, up to 447 kilometers (277 miles) long, 29 kilometers (18 miles) wide, and 1.8 kilometers (6,000 feet) deep, is the largest canyon in the United States. The Grand Canyon has been carved, over millions of years, as the Colorado River cuts through the Colorado Plateau. The Colorado Plateau is a large area that was elevated through tectonic uplift millions of years ago. Geologists debate the age of the canyon itself—it may be between 5 million and 70 million years old.
Canyons Reveal Earth’s History
Canyons are like silent journals of an area’s history over thousands or even millions of years. By studying the exposed layers of rock in a canyon wall, experts can learn about how the climate changed, what kind of organisms were alive at certain times, and perhaps even how the canyon may change in the future.
For example, geologists studying layers of rock in the Columbia River Gorge, in the U.S. states of Washington and Oregon, discovered that the oldest rocks there are at least 17 million years old. They also found out the rocks are dark-black basalt, made from hardened lava. From this, geologists determined that the rocks formed when volcanoes erupted and their lava spilled out onto the land. Over millions of years, the Columbia River and Ice Age glaciers cut through the area and exposed its volcanic beginnings.
Canyons are also important to paleontology, or the study of fossils. Fossils are often best preserved in dry, hot areas. Since canyons usually form under the same conditions, they are good places to examine fossils.
The layers of sediment revealed by a canyon can make it easier to date fossils. For example, a new area of dinosaur tracks was discovered in the U.S. state of Utah at Glen Canyon National Recreation Area in 2009. These tracks reveal new information about a group of dinosaurs called ornithopods. Paleontologists analyzed the layers of rock surrounding the fossils to estimate how old they were. These new dinosaur tracks show that ornithopods were alive 20 million years earlier than scientists thought.
Geologists study canyons to determine how the landscape will change in the future. The erosion patterns and thickness of different layers can reveal the climate during different years. A series of very dry years will have very thin layers of rock, when little erosion took place. The overall pattern of erosion and layering reveals the rate of water flow, from both the river and rain, through a canyon.
Geologists estimate that the Grand Canyon, for example, is being eroded at a rate of 0.3 meters (1 foot) every 200 years. The Colorado Plateau, the geologic area where the Grand Canyon is located, is a very stable area. Geologists expect the Grand Canyon to continue to deepen as long as the Colorado River flows.
Some of the deepest canyons lie beneath the ocean. These submarine canyons cut into continental shelves and continental slopes—the edges of continents that are underwater.
Some submarine canyons were carved by rivers that flowed during periods when the sea level was lower, and the continental shelves were exposed. The Hudson Canyon extends 750 kilometers (450 miles) into the Atlantic Ocean, from the mouth of the Hudson River, in the U.S. states of New York and New Jersey. At least part of the Hudson Canyon was the river bed during the last ice age, when sea levels were much lower.
Submarine canyons can also develop when powerful ocean currents sweep away sediments. Just as rivers erode land, these currents carve deep canyons in the ocean floor. Strong currents of the Atlantic Ocean prevent Whittard Canyon, about 400 kilometers (248 miles) south of the coast of Ireland, from filling with sediment. Scientists studying Whittard Canyon believe glacial water mixed with seawater to rush into the submarine canyon thousands of years ago.
The formation of some submarine canyons is still a mystery. Monterey Canyon is a deep submarine canyon off the coast of the U.S. state of California. It has been compared to the Grand Canyon because of its size. It is 152 kilometers (95 miles) long and 3.2 kilometers (2 miles) deep at its deepest point. Geologists still aren’t certain how Monterey Canyon was formed. One theory is that the canyon was formed by an ancient outlet of the Sacramento or Colorado Rivers. Another theory is that it was formed by tectonic activity—an earthquake splitting apart the rock with enormous force. Scientists believe the canyon was formed 25 million to 30 million years ago.
The depth of submarine canyons makes them hard to explore. Scientists usually use remotely operated vehicles (ROVs) to conduct studies. Sometimes, they can use a submersible, a special kind of submarine. The Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute (MBARI) uses a vehicle called Ventana to explore Monterey Canyon. Through the Ventana and other research vehicles, MBARI scientists have discovered new species of organisms living in the canyon, from tiny sea anemones to giant squid.
The largest canyon in the solar system isn't found on Earth. Valles Marineris is a canyon system on Mars that is 4,000 kilometers (2,485 miles) long, 600 kilometers (372 miles) wide, and, in some places, 10 kilometers (6 miles) deep.
The Grand Canyon, in contrast, is 447 kilometers (277 miles) long, 29 kilometers (18 miles) wide, and 1.8 kilometers (6,000 feet) deep.
Surfing is much more than just "riding the waves"it starts with what lies beneath. The seafloor transforms ordinary waves into good waves . . . and good waves into great surfing. Bathymetry, or measuring the depth and rise of the seafloor, is important to good surfers.
If there is a steep ascent of the ocean floor near the beach, it will cause waves to rise more quickly, and become bigger. If, however, the ocean floor has a slow and gradual ascent, the waves will come in more slowly, and not break as big.
The famous El Porto surf area off the coast of Los Angeles, California, is a good example of how big waves develop. An underwater canyon focuses the energy of underwater currents, and the canyon's steep walls cause waves to rise quickly, producing huge, powerful waves.
Term Part of Speech Definition Encyclopedic Entry ancient Adjective
type of dark volcanic rock.
box canyon Noun
deep canyon with an opening only on one side.
deep, narrow valley with steep sides.
Encyclopedic Entry: canyon cattle Noun
cows and oxen.
underground chamber that opens to the surface. Cave entrances can be on land or in water.
waterway between two relatively close land masses.
Encyclopedic Entry: channel civilization Noun
complex way of life that developed as humans began to develop urban settlements.
Encyclopedic Entry: civilization cliff Noun
steep wall of rock, earth, or ice.
Encyclopedic Entry: cliff climate Noun
all weather conditions for a given location over a period of time.
Encyclopedic Entry: climate continent Noun
one of the seven main land masses on Earth.
Encyclopedic Entry: continent continental shelf Noun
part of a continent that extends underwater to the deep-ocean floor.
Encyclopedic Entry: continental shelf continental slope Noun
the sometimes-steep descent of a continental shelf to the ocean floor.
enclosed area, usually for livestock.
rocky outermost layer of Earth or other planet.
Encyclopedic Entry: crust current Noun
steady, predictable flow of fluid within a larger body of that fluid.
Encyclopedic Entry: current dale Noun
area of land that receives no more than 25 centimeters (10 inches) of precipitation a year.
Encyclopedic Entry: desert determine Verb
very large, extinct reptile chiefly from the Mesozoic Era, 251 million to 65 million years ago.
in the direction of a flow, toward its end.
strong and long-lasting.
a place to live.
the sudden shaking of Earth's crust caused by the release of energy along fault lines or from volcanic activity.
to raise higher than the surrounding area.
entrenched river Noun
river with no flood plain, whose flow of water is trapped by the walls of a valley or gorge.
act in which earth is worn away, often by water, wind, or ice.
Encyclopedic Entry: erosion estimate Verb
to guess based on knowledge of the situation or object.
flood plain Noun
flat area alongside a stream or river that is subject to flooding.
Encyclopedic Entry: flood plain fossil Noun
remnant, impression, or trace of an ancient organism.
Encyclopedic Entry: fossil geologist Noun
person who studies the physical formations of the Earth.
giant squid Noun
deep-sea animal that can grow up to 12 meters (40 feet) long.
mass of ice that moves slowly over land.
Encyclopedic Entry: glacier gorge Noun
deep, narrow valley with steep sides, usually smaller than a canyon.
Encyclopedic Entry: gorge Grand Canyon Noun
large gorge made by the Colorado River in the U.S. state of Arizona.
people and culture native to the southwestern U.S.
confrontational or unfriendly.
water in its solid form.
Encyclopedic Entry: ice Ice Age Noun
last glacial period, which peaked about 20,000 years ago.
the geographic features of a region.
Encyclopedic Entry: landscape lava Noun
molten rock, or magma, that erupts from volcanoes or fissures in the Earth's surface.
type of sedimentary rock mostly made of calcium carbonate from shells and skeletons of marine organisms.
to wander aimlessly.
Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute (MBARI) Noun
organization with a mission to pursue advanced research and education in ocean science and technology.
Native American Noun
person whose ancestors were native inhabitants of North or South America. Native American usually does not include Eskimo or Hawaiian people.
people and culture native to the southwestern United States.
the study of fossils and life from early geologic periods.
Encyclopedic Entry: paleontology plateau Noun
large region that is higher than the surrounding area and relatively flat.
Encyclopedic Entry: plateau river Noun
large stream of flowing fresh water.
Encyclopedic Entry: river river bed Noun
material at the bottom of a river.
remotely operated vehicle.
common sedimentary rock formed by grains of sand compacted or cemented with material such as clay.
sea anemone Noun
type of marine animal related to corals and jellies.
sea level Noun
base level for measuring elevations. Sea level is determined by measurements taken over a 19-year cycle.
Encyclopedic Entry: sea level seawater Noun
salty water from an ocean or sea.
solid material transported and deposited by water, ice, and wind.
Encyclopedic Entry: sediment seep Verb
to slowly flow through a border.
people and culture native to the southwestern U.S. who flourished between the 1100s-1400s.
slot canyon Noun
very narrow, deep valley caused by water rushing through soft rock.
extreme incline or decline.
vehicle that can travel underwater.
submarine canyon Noun
underwater valley formed by eroding streams of muddy water through which sediment ultimately reaches and spreads across the flat abyssal plains of the ocean floor.
small submarine used for research and exploration.
tectonic activity Noun
movement of tectonic plates resulting in geologic activity such as volcanic eruptions and earthquakes.
tectonic plate Noun
massive slab of solid rock made up of Earth's lithosphere (crust and upper mantle). Also called lithospheric plate.
tectonic uplift Noun
movement of plates beneath the Earth's surface that causes one part of the landscape to rise higher than the surrounding area.
Valles Marineris Noun
largest canyon in the solar system, found along the equator of Mars.
depression in the Earth between hills.
an opening in the Earth's crust, through which lava, ash, and gases erupt, and also the cone built by eruptions.
Encyclopedic Entry: volcano weathering Noun
the breaking down or dissolving of the Earth's surface rocks and minerals.
Encyclopedic Entry: weathering