What is a waterfall and how is it formed?

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What is a waterfall and how is it formed?

Water, particularly from a stream or river, falling from mountains or hills to a lower place, is known as a waterfall or cascade.


Waterfalls are one of the greatest tourist attractions in the world. From their coolness to sound to aroma, they make the perfect sites where one can spend hours to feel the real beauty of the natural world. The best thing about exploring nature is we end up with a lot of questions wondering the science behind them. Same is the case with a waterfall. Looking at it, we often are surprised with the way it works, its flow and motion that is so mesmerizing.

What is a waterfall and how is it formed?

As river flows in its stream bed its water tends to erode the movable soil, sand, stones, rocks and other objects underneath, moving them along its flow. As it continues to move on its track it encounters huge rocks that are not possible to be moved hence it begins to flow over the rocks destroying its original boundaries.

This is a very good example of the second law of thermodynamics which states that things are more inclined to a disordered state. That’s exactly how the river water acts here. It destroys its original pathway and continues to flow outside its boundaries till the point it reaches an edge or a cliff. Then it falls down the drop off and crashes into a riverbed that it newly creates. This is how a new dip is created and a waterfall is formed.

Why is the waterfall chaotic at its bottom?

As the water continues to flow, its molecules push the other molecules with great force so much so that the force during the fall adds to the gravitational force and the kinetic energy reaches its maximum level. It tends to drain all the mineral molecules and impurities too.  When the water with its entire power hits the riverbed it looks bubbly and destructive making the river bed look like a pit.

The continuity of the river

When the water falls down into the riverbed it continues to run in line with the stream coming from the top without eroding the sides at the bottom. This is because the water tends to flow in its momentum at this stage as it is calm for some distance till it hits a diversion.

The most popular waterfalls of the world

The largest waterfall of the world by height is Angel Falls which is 979 meters. Niagara Falls which is one of the most beautiful waterfalls is just 51 meters in height. Other famous waterfalls include Iguazu Falls and Victoria Falls.

The physics of waterfall is also employed in other things like a hydropower plant in which falling water is made to produce the kinetic energy. The energy turns the turbines in order to produce electricity which is either used immediately or even stored. 

Types of Waterfalls

There are different types of waterfalls of which the two most prominent ones are:

Cascading waterfalls

These are the falls in which the water falls in steps, meaning it doesn’t go directly into the pit. The volume and the flow of water determine the type of fall that is created.

Ledge Waterfalls

The ledge waterfalls are the ones in which the water falls down at once over the cliff. So the water molecules push each other with huge force and since there are no step like rocks in their way, the water in turn falls directly over the ledge with huge force.  

Other types of waterfalls include:

  • Segmented waterfall
  • Cataract waterfall
  • Plunge waterfall
  • Block waterfall
  • Multistep waterfall
  • Fan waterfall
  • Punchbowl waterfall etc.

Key Facts About Waterfalls

  • The ancient Romans created an artificial waterfall called the Cascata delle Marmore. It has a total height of 541 feet or 165 meters, which is the tallest artificial waterfall in the whole world.
  • Yosemite falls situated in California is known as the tallest of the waterfalls in the United States. Its vertical drop is of 2425 feet or 739 meters.
  • The largest single drop water cascade on the basis of the water’s volume flowing over this cascade is Kaieteur Falls, situated in the rainforest of Guyana. Its average water flow rate is 23,400 cubic feet/second or 663 cubic meters/second.
  • Horsetail Falls is situated in California’s Yosemite National Park. At about February’s second week when the sun sets, the ray hits the waterfall at the right angle and the water becomes red and orange. This rare natural phenomenon is famously known as the Firefall.
  • Ban Gioc – Detain Falls, located on the Vietnam and China border, is the fourth among the largest waterfalls of the world situated cross-border. Niagara, Victoria, and Iguazu come before it. Its height is 98 feet or 30 meters.
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