• 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 U.S. 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.
    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 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, Hawaii. 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 (.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.
    Victoria Falls is on the Zambezi River, between Zimbabwe and Zambia.

    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.

  • Term Part of Speech Definition Encyclopedic Entry
    air pressure Noun

    force pressed on an object by air or atmosphere.

    base Noun

    bottom layer of a structure.

    canal Noun

    artificial waterway.

    canyon Noun

    deep, narrow valley with steep sides.

    Encyclopedic Entry: canyon
    cascade Noun

    shallow waterfall over rocks.

    channel Noun

    deepest part of a shallow body of water, often a passageway for ships.

    classify Verb

    to identify or arrange by specific type or characteristic.

    commercial Adjective

    having to do with the buying and selling of goods and services.

    decrease Verb

    to lower.

    divert Verb

    to direct away from a familiar path.

    earthquake Noun

    the sudden shaking of Earth's crust caused by the release of energy along fault lines or from volcanic activity.

    electricity Noun

    set of physical phenomena associated with the presence and flow of electric charge.

    elevation Noun

    height above or below sea level.

    Encyclopedic Entry: elevation
    engineer Noun

    person who plans the building of things, such as structures (construction engineer) or substances (chemical engineer).

    erosion Noun

    act in which earth is worn away, often by water, wind, or ice.

    Encyclopedic Entry: erosion
    fall line Noun

    imaginary line along which parallel rivers plunge, or fall.

    Encyclopedic Entry: fall line
    fault Noun

    a crack in the Earth's crust where there has been movement.

    geologist Noun

    person who studies the physical formations of the Earth.

    glacier Noun

    mass of ice that moves slowly over land.

    Encyclopedic Entry: glacier
    Great Lakes Noun

    largest freshwater bodies in the world, located in the United States and Canada. Lake Huron, Lake Ontario, Lake Michigan, Lake Erie, and Lake Superior make up the Great Lakes.

    hydroelectric energy Noun

    energy generated by moving water converted to electricity. Also known as hydroelectricity.

    Encyclopedic Entry: hydroelectric energy
    hydroelectric power Noun

    usable energy generated by moving water converted to electricity.

    hydrologist Noun

    person who studies the distribution, circulation, and properties of water.

    landslide Noun

    the fall of rocks, soil, and other materials from a mountain, hill, or slope.

    Encyclopedic Entry: landslide
    mist Noun

    clouds at ground-level, but with greater visibility than fog.

    Encyclopedic Entry: mist
    mountaineer Noun

    someone who climbs mountains.

    navigation Noun

    art and science of determining an object's position, course, and distance traveled.

    Encyclopedic Entry: navigation
    outcropping Noun

    layer of rock visible above the surface of the Earth.

    parallel Adjective

    equal distance apart, and never meeting.

    pebble Noun

    very small, rounded rock.

    plummet Verb

    to fall sharply.

    plunge pool Noun

    relatively deep pool of water beneath a waterfall.

    rainforest Noun

    area of tall, mostly evergreen trees and a high amount of rainfall.

    Encyclopedic Entry: Rainforest
    rapids Noun

    areas of fast-flowing water in a river or stream that is making a slight descent.

    Encyclopedic Entry: rapids
    recede Verb

    to go backward or withdraw.

    reservoir Noun

    natural or man-made lake.

    Encyclopedic Entry: reservoir
    sediment Noun

    solid material transported and deposited by water, ice, and wind.

    Encyclopedic Entry: sediment
    silt Noun

    small sediment particles.

    Encyclopedic Entry: silt
    tourism Noun

    the industry (including food, hotels, and entertainment) of traveling for pleasure.

    tranquil Adjective

    peaceful and calm.

    tributary Noun

    stream that feeds, or flows, into a larger stream.

    Encyclopedic Entry: tributary
    velocity Noun

    measurement of the rate and direction of change in the position of an object.

    volcano Noun

    an opening in the Earth's crust, through which lava, ash, and gases erupt, and also the cone built by eruptions.

    Encyclopedic Entry: Plate Tectonics and Volcanic Activity
    volume Noun

    space an object occupies.

    waterfall Noun

    flow of water descending steeply over a cliff. Also called a cascade.

    Encyclopedic Entry: waterfall
    waterfall Noun

    flow of water descending steeply over a cliff. Also called a cascade.

    Encyclopedic Entry: waterfall
    whirlpool Noun

    llquid flowing quickly in a circular motion, pulling material downward into its center.