New! Web TV

Over The Lip - Mountain Waterfalls

Few landforms showcase the power of water better thanUpper Johnston Canyon Waterfall, Banff National Park, Alberta, Canada waterfalls. Standing beneath the 380 m (1,249 ft) drop of Takakkaw Falls in Yoho National Park, the power of waterfalls is instantly apparent. Waterfalls are more than just a ledge over which water falls. They are the result of a specific set of conditions that allow water to maintain its vertical cascade. In the case of Takakkaw Falls, the mighty Daly Glacier, only a few hundred metres above the falls, releases immense amounts of water into its narrow channel. This ends up cascading over the lip of the Waputik Range. This type of waterfall, where there simply happens to be a cliff in the way of a river, forms a minority of waterfalls. In this case, over time, the river will cut into the cliff, reducing the gradient of the waterfall, until eventually, only a rapid will remain.

The majority of waterfalls result from layers of rock composed of different degrees of hardness. Hard layers are more resistant to erosion. Soft layers are quickly removed. This is visible all around us in the mountains. Most of our summits are made of resistant limestone or dolomite. The softer shale layers remain protected beneath these resistant caps. If a river flows over a lip composed of a layer of resistant material (like dolomite), that lays atop a softer layer of shale, then the water will remove the soft layer beneath the dolomite at a faster rate. In this way, waterfalls often become undercut as this soft material is worn away. This results in the caves found beneath many waterfalls. Eventually, the undercut becomes so large that the weight of water on the unsupported layer of dolomite will be sufficient to collapse the layer. At this time, amidst a catastrophic collapse, the cave disappears, and the cliff face moves further up the valley. In many cases, the hard-soft layer relationship remains, and the falls simply migrates upstream. This creates a canyon in front of the waterfall. As long as the hardness differential remains, the waterfall will persist. Common examples of this type of waterfall are Athabasca Falls, Sunwapta Falls, and Johnston Canyon.

Learn more about specific Waterfalls

Hire an expert guide show you our mountain waterfalls


All Material Ward Cameron 2005