This article is about natural river formations. For decorative waterfalls, see Artificial waterfall. For other uses, see Waterfall (disambiguation).
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 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 the river.[1] At these times the channel is often narrow and deep. When the river courses over resistant bedrock, erosion happens slowly, while downstream the erosion occurs more rapidly.[1][2] As the watercourse increases its velocity at the edge of the waterfall, it plucks material from the riverbed. Whirlpools created in the turbulence as well as sand and stones carried by the watercourse increase the 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.[3] 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 or gorge.

Streams 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. 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

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).[4]


Underwater waterfalls

It is thought that the underwater waterfall the Denmark Strait cataract is the largest waterfall by all measures with a drop of 11,500 feet or 3,500 m and a flow rate exceeding 175 million cubic feet (5.0 million cubic meters) per second, making it 350 times as voluminous as the extinct Guaíra Falls on the border of Brazil and Paraguay, which was once thought to be the most voluminous waterfall on Earth.

Examples of famous waterfalls

Significant waterfalls,[7] listed alphabetically:

See also

Wikimedia Commons has media related to Waterfall.
Wikivoyage has a travel guide for Waterfalls.


  1. 1 2 3 4 5 6 Carreck, Rosalind, ed. (1982). The Family Encyclopedia of Natural History. The Hamlyn Publishing Group. pp. 246–248. ISBN 0711202257.
  2. 1 2 3 4 5 "Adventure". 16 June 2008. Retrieved 10 November 2016.
  3. "Observe river erosion creating waterfalls and chasms.". Retrieved 10 November 2016.
  4. Richard H. Beisel Jr., International Waterfall Classification System, Outskirts Press, 2006 ISBN 1-59800-340-2
  5. 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 "Worldwaterfalls.com". Retrieved 10 November 2016.
  6.  This article incorporates text from a publication now in the public domain: Chambers, Ephraim, ed. (1728). "Catadupa". Cyclopædia, or an Universal Dictionary of Arts and Sciences (first ed.). James and John Knapton, et al. p. 169.
  7. "World Waterfall Database - The webs most authoritive source about Waterfalls". Retrieved 10 November 2016.
  8. "Falls of Lora Information" The Falls of Lora. Retrieved 18 Sept 2011.
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