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Types of Waterfalls

There are many types of waterfall which leads to debate over classification. Here we look at some of the different types and some of the terms used to describe them.

As we have seen in our introduction to Waterfalls of the World, defining and classifying waterfalls is a subjective science.

Waterfalls can be divided into two broad categories. A cataract is a type of waterfall with a large, single vertical drop, usually falling clear of the bedrock. A cascade waterfall is used to describe a waterfall running over an irregular steep surfaced gradient where the water is generally in contact with the river bedrock. Rapids can be classified as fast flowing water running over a generally less steep gradient, although no set gradients are established to divide rapids and cascades.

Cascading waterfall - Tinuy-an Falls in the 

Cascading waterfall - Tinuy-an Falls in the Philippines
By MyCommons199 - Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0

The simplest type of cataract waterfall is the plunge waterfall, when a river runs over a ledge and descends vertically without contact with the substrate rock, usually falling into a plunge pool. Plunge waterfalls tend to be taller than they are wide, and include some of the tallest, or highest, waterfalls in the world, including Angel Falls, generally accepted as the tallest waterfall in the world at 979 metres.

Plunge waterfall - Dangar Falls in Australia

Plunge waterfall - Dangar Falls in Australia
Dangar_Falls_Dorrigo.JPG, CC BY-SA 3.0

A sheet or block waterfall is formed by a wide river, creating a long fall-line and uninterrupted sheet of falling water. Sheet waterfalls are usually wider than they are high, although the term curtain waterfall is used to describe sheet waterfalls which are taller than they are wide. Niagara Falls and the Victoria Falls, Zimbabwe, are classic examples of this type of waterfall.

Waterfalls may have several sections, known as drops or tiers to their vertical height, resulting in many different fall-lines and falls with varied heights.

Segmented waterfalls occur where the river splits into separate channels by the occurrence of a rock or island across the width of the falls. The Victoria Falls, for example, are segmented by the presence of two islands along the fall-line. Many waterfalls form segmented sections when in flood. The Cataratas del Iguazú in Argentina are broken up into many segmented falls and tiers with varying drops.

Segmented waterfall - Cataratas del Iguaz├║ in Argentina

Segmented waterfall - Cataratas del Iguazú in Argentina
FatimaMi├▒orro, CC BY-SA 4.0 , via Wikimedia Commons

Ribbon waterfalls are low flow, thin waterfalls, often dropping great heights. Seasonal or ephemeral waterfalls may flow only part of the year. Many of these types of waterfalls form after flash floods, and are not classified as permanent waterfalls.

Waterfalls may also exhibit combinations of elements of these varying types to different degrees, making classification even more problematic.

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