Waterfall Classification

Waterfalls come in all shapes and sizes. No two are alike. But you can spot similarities if you take a closer look.

Most waterfall books and online guides classify waterfalls by their visual appearance. A wide, vertical falls is often called a 'curtain falls'. A tall, narrow one is often called 'ribbon falls'.

But there is a problem here... If river flow drops, does a curtain become a ribbon? What happens when the waterfall dries up?

Most waterfalls don't have a free-falling jet like this.

Waterfalls of Ontario Method

Waterfalls come in different shapes.

The Waterfalls of Ontario book developed a classification system that is based on the appearance of the bedrock. This way, even if the flow dries up, the waterfall's classification doesn't change.

A geology-based method also helps us understand how the falls were formed and how they are likely to evolve.

As the Waterfalls of Ontario project evolved, each new edition of the book included minor revisions to the classification method. The fourth edition (2022) method is used here, though I have added a few more modifications.

If you read the Waterfall Geology section, you may remember that some rocks are stronger than others, and that all rocks have cracks called 'fractures'.

Waterfall shape is controlled mostly by varying rock strength as well as the nature and orientation of fractures. These are zones of weakness that are exploited by the power of the river.

An important note: Some categories blend into each other. Also, many waterfalls have elements of more than one category.

Waterfall shapes are controlled by geology, but modified by the force of water.

Waterfall Types

More About Classification

There are other waterfall classification sytems in use. None of the methodologies are 'official', and people are of course free to use whatever they like.

The most popular method was devised by Ron Plumb. You can see a description of this method at World of Waterfalls. This method was adopted for the Hamilton waterfalls, for example, and is referenced by Wikipedia.

A simplified version of the above method is used by New England Waterfalls.com

Aidie Creek Rapids in Timiskaming.
Tiny waterfalls can make big pictures.

No classification method is perfect. The method used here works for the Waterfalls of Ontario. As a reminder, many waterfalls have elements of more than one category. Nature is never simple!

If you are from outside of Ontario, note that this method may not be totally applicable in your area. You may have geological conditions that we don't. I'd be interested in hearing from you if you have different categories, either for Ontario or elsewhere.

Waterfalls of Ontario Project

This project has been online since 1999, in print since 2003, and on social since 2011. (See archives: 2003, 2012, 2018). It was the first to inventory and map Ontario's waterfalls for recreational purposes. With your continued help, it grows. Learn more...
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This page last updated on July 6, 2024. Earlier versions can be examined on Archive.org, dating back to 2003.