Waterfalls 101: Why Do We Care About Waterfalls?

The O'Shaughnessy Dam at Hetch Hetchy, Yosemite National Park

This article is part of the Waterfalls 101 series, where we attempt to get schooled about our favorite subject - waterfalls. By the time you've read through this material, perhaps you can impress your friends (or perhaps scare them away) with your newly gained waterfalling knowledge! Other articles that belong to this curriculum are:

What is it about waterfalls that makes us notice and care about them?

To answer this question, we've proposed some topics for discussion.

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Now I've had skeptics and gung ho pro-capitalists confront me about what waterfalls are good for. Unfortunately for nature, the benefits (especially health-related) aren't immediately apparent and they often don't outweigh the potential financial windfall that decision-makers often face.

A couple of years ago, I've written an article about why my wife and I visit waterfalls from a mental and physical health standpoint, which you can read here. So regarding this aspect of waterfalls, we'll merely summarize the benefits here and not reinvent the wheel.

Háifoss in Iceland They are improved mood, relaxation, exercise, good respiration, and optimization of limited time on earth.

The improved mood results from the fact that waterfalls tend to have aesthetic qualities to them. When we see something we perceive as beautiful (whether it's seeing someone attractive, some incredible natural feature [like waterfalls!], even an elegant solution to a difficult problem, etc.), we tend to be happier. This is the essence of the point I'm trying to establish here. Scientifically, there are claims that negative ions that are abundant in waterfalls somehow increase serotonin levels, which ultimately helps our mood.

The relaxation comes from an observation that I and many others have made about the action of the water producing motion and sound. Many of us are drawn to the sound that waterfalls make. Sometimes we are also drawn to the constant motion of the water. Both these observations seem to have a relaxing effect on us.

The good respiration is a fancy way of saying that natural waterfalls tend to be in places with clean air. Therefore, your respiration system will love you for it if you breathe clean air by visiting waterfalls.

Mom enjoying herself at Lower Calf Creek Falls The optimization of our time on earth is something I've concluded when you throw the health benefits together. Let's face it. We're all gonna die some day so how do you make the most of your time on earth? Given the health benefits I talked about earlier and some things you can do to use waterfalls as an excuse to spend more time together with loved ones (e.g. hiking together, swimming around them, shooting the breeze by them, etc.), it makes sense to me that spending your time waterfalling makes the most of your time on earth. Call me biased, but this not only has the ability to benefit you, but as you'll see later in this page, there are other things just having waterfalls there in nature does for everyone and every species! And if there's something you can do (or not do like leaving things natural) that can benefit not just yourself but just about everyone and everything else without making others suffer (or at least minimizing this), I'd say that's getting the most bang for your precious time and a cause worth preserving.

We'll go into the environmental aspects in the next section on this page. But once again, I have an article that explains all of the above points in greater detail, which you can read about here.

While the above health benefits talk about what waterfalls tend to do to us, we haven't really talked said anything about the science behind it. And without science, it's all just heresay, right? So let's see if there's any truth to the above claims.

Most of the health benefits are believed to stem from a property of moving water resulting in negative ions. Somehow these negative ions result in increased serotonin levels (i.e. the dream hormone) secreted in our brain. I've written a short article looking into this property, which you can read here.

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I also made the point that waterfalls announce the health of an ecosystem in our "Why Waterfalls?" article so I'll just summarize it here.

When you leave nature alone, sometimes that random chance allows waterfalls to develop. And with nature unimpeded, you have organisms that manage to adapt over the millions or even billions of years given the set of conditions that nature set for them. You mess with that natural balance of things and you can expect organisms unable to adapt to the new set of rules we quickly impose. Therefore, you get extinctions and a loss of biodiversity as well as a potentially dysfunctional ecosystem (who knows when that returns and bites us in the arse?). It's for this basic reason that waterfalls are an indicator of the health of the ecosystem.

Mist from Kaieteur Falls nourishing vegetation at its base For example, you could have a microforest solely fed by the spray of the waterfall. You could have photosynthesizing algae (some of which might provide food for insects or other smaller life) clinging to moist vertical walls around waterfalls. Even the freshwater watercourse itself can support various fish and adjoining plant life, which in turn become food for more developed organisms like bears, deer, and humans!

A healthy river system (which once again I have to reiterate that waterfalls can indicate this) tends to have lots of plant and tree life tapping into the freshwater resources on its banks. That has the consequence of reduced rate of erosion from the banks of the watercourse as the water returns to the ocean. The reduced rate of erosion is a good thing because most sediment settles in the ocean and ultimately increases its acidity slowly over time. Speed up this acidity and it could spell disaster for all species on earth! Previous mass extinctions may have occurred because of oceanic acidity (something we're in danger of as we continue to dump tremendous amounts of waste into the ocean).

The once reliable but now ephemeral Wailua Iki Falls in East Maui We've seen what happens when natural streamflow is disturbed by man. For example, the diversion ditches through Hawaii's freshwater systems deprived forests of water, resulting in only flash floods racing through the drainages, increasing the rate of sediment erosion and dumping all that sediment and dead life into the oceans. The dysfunctional drainage tends to also affect the local microclimate (e.g. trees and plants that were once there no longer help the ecosystem retain water and produce food that would've benefitted denizens there, localized weather may be more erratic and ultimate resulting in desertification [thanks to soil erosion], etc.). This is certainly something to keep in mind when you drive Maui's Hana Highway and observe the feast or famine cycle thanks to the ditches further upstream robbing the drainages of water that you can see at each bridge along the road. In other words, you may see hundreds of waterfalls during rain or a bunch of bare walls barely a day or two after rain.

There are plenty of other examples of dysfunctioning ecosystems due to human interference of river systems (announced by unhealthy or nonexistent waterfalls) around the world where hydroelectricity and diversion for agricultural purposes have occurred. Such examples include the Three Gorges Dam, the Colorado River Dams, Kárahnjúkar Dam, Itaipu Dam, etc. etc.

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So we've established that waterfalls announce the health of an ecosystem and what happens when man interferes with a watercourse. So why mess with it?

Hydroelectric facility at Chishimba Falls in Zambia Well, modern life requires the use of energy and industrial scale production of food. And in order to feed into this demand for both, some manipulation of nature must occur.

Therefore, we end up with hydroelectricity and agriculture. We won't go too deeply into agriculture because hydroelectricity is more directly tied into waterfalls. Just realize that you hear lots about irrigation ditches around farms and cultivation fields ever since the advent of human civilization. Indeed, this is a practice that has been there for thousands of years and some compromises with nature must be made in order to feed more people. Of course, all this has the net effect of robbing water from a natural watercourse. That's all I'll say about diversion for agricultural purposes, but just talking about it in this paragraph demonstrates some of the compromises that must be made if we want to support a larger population of people at the expense of earth's resources available to all.

So let's go into hydroelectricity, which could very well be the bane of all freshwater systems and especially waterfalls.

The basic principle behind energy generated from water is the action of water moving under the influence of gravity which then turns mechanical devices which can convert that energy into electricity.

In physics terms, water coming from higher elevations has more potential energy (stored gravitational energy) than water sitting at lower elevations (i.e. some of that stored gravitational energy got released as kinetic energy, meaning the water is moving or even accelerating). Of course, it doesn't have to be water that's going from potential to kinetic energy. Roller coaster rides are another easy example to visualize. After all, why is it that they always have to pull you up a very large hill on chains before the roller coaster is left to its own devices?

The following drawings (Figures 1 & 2) illustrate this.

Potential to Kinetic Energy Conversion with Water

Figure 1: Illustration of potential energy being converted into kinetic energy using water; Here, the kinetic energy is in the form of gravity accelerating water, which could be rapids, cascades, or even a waterfall!

Potential to Kinetic Energy Conversion applied to a roller coaster clearing a 360-degree loop

Figure 2: Illustration of potential energy being converted into kinetic energy using a roller coaster; Here, the kinetic energy is in the form of a zooming roller coaster moving fast enough under the influence of gravity to make it through the 360-degree loop

The following animation beautifully helps you to visualize this in action. Or, if you have the Flash plug-in on your web browser, you can check out this beautiful animation by the Michigan Technical University.

So why have dams to get hydroelectricity when all you need is the motion of water, which is supplied by gravity?

Hydroelectricity is often associated with dams because it's the dams that have the ability to hold up the water in a reservoir and electric companies more or less have a consistent and controllable supply of potential energy. Without them, you're subject to the variations in waterflow from heavy rains and flood to drought. Since energy companies require supplying electricity to their customers consistently, such erratic behavior by nature is unacceptable.

But why are waterfalls usually the victims of hydroelectricity?

The maximum influence of gravity occurs when you're falling vertically. In other words, if you let a ball drop over an overhanging cliff, you can bet it will move faster than a ball rolling on a steep slope and way faster than a ball hardly rolling on a flatter surface.

The following drawing (Figure 3) illustrates this.

which case do you think will convert all of its potential energy into kinetic energy first?

Figure 3: Which case do you think will convert all of its potential energy into kinetic energy first?

Applying this principle to water, you get the fastest conversion of potential energy to kinetic energy when water drops vertically as opposed to when water drops at an angle. The greater the elevation change, the greater the potential energy that can be released as kinetic energy, which in turn can be used to spin turbines, waterwheels, water mills, hydraulics, you name it!

In other words, with its dramatic elevation change, waterfalls provide the best case scenario to exploit the power of moving water influenced by gravity!

Not only that. With the natural elevation change around waterfalls, it's cheaper to and easier to divert water to turbines for energy conversion.

Some energy companies call hydroelectricity a renewable energy because the sun's energy evaporates water from the oceans and sends them to mountains in weather patterns. The water runs down the mountains in a demonstration of potential energy becoming kinetic energy. But when the water is caught behind dams, you can control and manipulate this energy conversion. Eventually, the water will return to the stream further downstream and go back to the oceans.

But not so fast! Before you claim that hydroelectricity is clean energy, you have to consider its consequences.

While destruction of waterfalls is certainly a major detriment to nature and waterfall lovers, let's discuss consequences that are less subjective (since we'll always have people agreeing to disagree on the subjective stuff).

The reservoir at Hetch Hetchy Valley First, dams hold up water and create reservoirs. But it's the reservoirs that tend to displace residents, destroy homes, and drown life upstream from it. There have been numerous documented cases of Native American tribes and rural residents being forced to move because their homes were drowned by the reservoir. The latest example of displacement and destruction by higher water levels is at the Three Gorges Dam in China. Here, you have numerous rural residents being forced to move while plenty of historical relics of invaluable archaeological importance are forever gone. The environmental damage from the Itaipu Dam between Paraguay and Brazil include vast tracts of rainforest drowned by the reservoir. Such devastated rainforests results in fewer trees to scrub the air of carbon dioxide (i.e. greenhouse gases). In fact, the dead matter drowned by the reservoir even adds more greenhouse gases to the air in the form of methane thanks to the decaying organic matter!

Second, the disruption of waterflow from dams results in the buildup of sediment behind the dam. Watercourses naturally erode its banks and carry that sediment downstream. This is the very same process that results in deeper canyons and gorges over time (after all, that's how the Grand Canyon was formed). Usually, the sediment is moved downstream which may nourish deltas or estuaries with their nutrient-rich deposits. However, if the flow is interrupted by a dam, that sediment remains behind it and eventually settles to the bottom of the reservoir. Over time, the bottom of the reservoir can become a submerged mud flat or coalesce into the bedrock. But beyond the dam, this sediment is missing and that results in a chain reaction of events that (as alluded to earlier) ultimately leads to a dysfunctional ecosystem.

Mud flats left behind near the Hite Marina thanks to the Glen Canyon Dam Related to this topic of flow interruption, often times waste is introduced into the watercourse upstream from the dam. Waste can be in the form of defacation (from both wildlife and humans), dead matter, and anything else that gets dumped into the stream. With a freely flowing watercourse, this stuff gets flushed into the ocean. But with a dam, this stuff sits behind the dam!

Third, the water levels of the reservoir can fluctuate. Such fluctuations can destabilize surrounding cliffs and accelerate erosion. This not only increases sedimentation in the reservoir, but if you happen to be living on one of those hills affected by the reservoir, you might find your land sliding into the reservoir! This is happening as we speak at the Three Gorges Dam in China.

Salmon ladders like this one by Eidsfossen in Norway can allow salmon to bypass waterfalls, but only if the falls is not too tall Fourth, migratory organisms risk extinction with the interruption in water flow. For example, freshwater salmon can't continue to swim upstream without the help of salmon ladders. But if the dam is too large scale to have an effective salmon ladder, their migratory path is completely blocked and therefore they can't spawn in their normal breeding grounds. Other organisms such as rare native freshwater shrimp in Hawaii are either critically endangered or extinct thanks to the interruption of waterflow downstream of the dam or diversion ditch.

Lastly (but I'm sure there are other detrimental factors), there's always the possibility of a dam failure. This could be from weakening by earthquakes to poor engineering to old age or even sabotage. There have already been incidences of dam failure resulting in floods and loss of life downstream. In fact, it happened in Banqiao Dam in the past and there's a concern that the Three Gorges Dam could be even more catastrophic (i.e. millions of lives instead of hundreds of thousands) if it were to fail!

So with all the negative effects of hydroelectricity, is it really necessary?

(Warning!) Here's where it gets political.

There are renewable sources of energy without the baggage of siltation upstream and altered watercourse ecology (from lack of consistent water) downstream of the dams. Such renewable sources (namely solar and wind) are far cleaner and harness vast amounts of free energy provided by the sun (wind power is a consequence of solar power driving atmospheric events). So with technology making possible the widespread use of solar cell photovoltaics and to a lesser extent wind turbines and even geothermal plants and coastal buoys for wave energy (plus energy storage mechanisms like batteries to smooth out natural intermittencies), why aren't we doing it?

Fossil fuel power station in Aruba of all places The reason for maintaining the status quo of the hydro, nuclear, fossil fuel combo is mostly control. If you can control scarce resources that people demand or need, you have yourself the ability to make lots of money and control lots of people. Of course resources don't necessarily need to be for energy. You could have scarce precious metals or minerals (remember Blood Diamond?) or even scarce cocoa (now we're hearing about Blood Chocolates in West Africa) or even the human body trade for organ donation at the expense of those who are in extreme poverty.

Indeed, if energy is de-centralized and distributed (like what would be the case with solar energy), where's the monopolization and control (i.e. how can they make lots of money from it)?

If everyone had solar panels on their rooftops and every street lamp and railroad tracks were lined with them, this would be unacceptable to those who are currently benefitting from fossil fuels (e.g. oil companies, politicians bought off by them, workers employed by them, etc.) or other centralized forms of energy requiring capital and infrastructure that only a few can afford to put up and control (like nuclear, coal, natural gas [the latter two are fossil fuels by the way], and to a lesser extent wind, geothermal, and wave). By the way, if you disagree with the involvement of politicians in the previous statement, look at the coal and oil subsidies they get from taxpayer's money (no wonder why oil and coal is so cheap compared to solar)!

And with solar energy seemingly the solution to preserve waterfalls, reduce resource scarcity (since silicon [i.e. sand or glass] is very abundant), and still feed the energy needs of our modern lifestyle while helping developing nations catch up (thereby promoting geo-political stability), it's pretty obvious that it should be the way to go as long as the human nature of greed doesn't get in the way.

Finally, there are more uses of water besides hydro and agriculture which I failed to mention above. The following website talks about water's uses (as well as historical use of water) in far greater detail than I can ever do (regardless of whether the usage is agreeable or not). It's a very interesting read. Check it out here.

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You frequently hear about landscapes wanting to put waterfalls in their backyard or even inside their homes! You might also see shopping areas and parks as well as amusement parks and even sports complexes (like Angel Stadium) have waterfalls as landscaping features.

Heck, even several bridges in Lower Manhattan introduced waterfalls as well (they're gone in October though)!

Manmade waterfall feeding swimming pool in the middle of the Sheraton on the Big Island of Hawaii Why do people do this?

I think it has to do with trying to recapture some of the health benefits mentioned earlier as well as enhance property value.

The basic principle behind this is that you have some kind of water pump that moves water up (creating potential energy in the water) and letting that water run down a wall or manmade cliff in the form of a waterfall (i.e. gravity releasing the potential energy as kinetic energy).

Such a water pump requires energy though so there's so question whether this is a good thing or not. Keep in mind that as of this writing, most of our energy taken from the electricity grid is derived from coal-fired power stations.

Ideally, if you want to enjoy the benefits of bringing a waterfall into your home, you'd want to power your water pump by something greener. Perhaps a solar panel driving the water pump or a solar heater evaporating grey water (i.e. nondrinkable water) into a catchment that drains into the waterfall! Note the latter solution is a microcosm of the natural water cycle!

Of course, the utopian solution given all the power grid infrastructure we're stuck with right now would be to have our power grid completely powered by solar powered photovoltaics, wind power, geothermal power, wave power, or even landfill power (via methane emissions) or a combination of all of the above.

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The last section above Home Improvement brings up a very interesting idea regarding energy storage.

First, let's motivate why energy storage is necessary.

If you buy the idea of green technology from solar, wind, wave, etc., then you might observe that nature tends to be a bit erratic in terms of supplying such energy. For example, you can't predict how often you'll have decreased output from cloudy days as well as always having shadows and night time regarding solar power. You might also have erratic wind subject to the whims of the weather patterns which is a drawback for wind power. Tidal energy also suffers similar problems as some days will yield great output while other days might have waters being too calm to get anything out of it.

So how do you mitigate these intermittencies or variances of nature?

The key is energy storage.

Currently, the most effective solar energy solutions involve a combination of photovoltaics with some kind of battery. That battery is always charged up by free energy from the sun, and the rest of the home is powered a combination of that battery and the power grid when the battery runs out of charge (like at night or if you're really using a lot of energy at one time).

The longest lasting, most reliable, and most affordable batteries at this point in time for this purpose is the good old fashioned lead acid battery (the kind you have in your car). Unfortunately, the toxic compounds that produce the desirable properties of storing and depleting charge and back over hundreds maybe thousands of cycles also leave much to be desired environmentally. Plus, producing such compounds to package into the lead acid batteries is also environmentally detrimental.

So what do we do?

That's where waterfalls in the context of home improvement comes in!

What if the lead acid battery was replaced by a mini water catchment in your backyard or even in your attic?

Then you let the water in the catchment or attic funnel into an intake area where the water is allowed to drop (i.e. your own little waterfall) where you can have a waterwheel or mini-turbine to turn that gravitational energy of water pressure into electrical energy.

As long as you have water in your catchment to supply the waterfall, you'll have electricity to your home.

Eventually that water goes further into a drainage where it can be in a thermal enclosure (something that lets light in but traps heat) where energy is concentrated and greenhoused by the sun. That's the mechanism for water to rise and be sent back to the catchment to repeat the cycle.

To enhance the system, the catchment could also catch some incidental rainwater (like cloudy days with less sun).

While I realize that not everyone can implement this mini-water-cycle energy storage system, you can at least see how this scheme is perpetually powered by the sun and pretty much as green as you can get.

But supposing that for some reason or another this solution isn't practical, the latest efforts in research and development seems to show the most promise in hydrogen fuel cells.

This is the end of the waterfall and energy storage discussion, but if you're interested, you can read further about why hydrogen fuel cells combined with solar energy might be the way to go to be truly green and energy hungry at the same time.

The principle behind hydrogen fuel cell technology is that you somehow strip hydrogen from a compound or molecule containing hydrogen (this requires energy) and let the free hydrogen recombine in its more natural state releasing energy in the process.

The compound from which to extract hydrogen has historically been from natural gas, which is a fossil fuel, and hence unacceptable as a green solution. However, it might be possible to somehow use solar energy to free up hydrogen gas from water (this takes LOTs of energy, but the sun can supply it).

Supposing we were successful doing that, there's another matter of containing hydrogen gas. Gas is spacious and compressing it into a manageable volume (like a cannister or something you can carry) is very nontrivial as it requires energy to do the compression as well as the container that could handle the pressures within. This is one of the biggest drawbacks to hydrogen fuel cells.

However, there is cutting edge breakthroughs and research to solve the free hydrogen storage problem. With continued research and development (I think this is where government subsidies need to go instead of coal, oil, natural gas, and nuclear), it's a matter of time before we have a sustainable solution. Really, the only thing holding back the solar/hydrogen fuel cell combo is politics (though overcoming the human nature of fear, selfishness, and greed, which ultimately drive what's currently wrong with politics seems to be the ultimate catch-22).

I'm sure there's other competing energy storage solutions involving carbon sponges, etc. That's all fine and dandy, but whatever solution that comes up, the most important thing is that all materials must be abundant and not scarce, and the energy required to produce the technology must be exclusively indefinitely sustainable.

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