Generally defined as “an area where water flows over a vertical drop or a series of steep drops in the course of a stream or river”, a waterfall can be anything from a metre in height to many hundreds of metres. Cascades are defined as a “series of small, continuous waterfalls”, and are therefore a type (or subset) of waterfalls.

How many waterfall types are there?

Waterfalls can be classified into many different types, depending primarily on how the water falls. The ten classifications below are fairly widely accepted:

  1. Block, Ledge or Rectangular – falling water has a clear rectangular shape, like a sheet of water over the cliff face
  2. Cascade – water descends along a sloped surface with irregular shape, usually consisting of several small steps
  3. Cataract – a waterfall that is large, very powerful and rushes down with force.
  4. Chute – pressurized waterfall where a large volume of water is forced through a narrow passage
  5. Fan – water produces a fan-like shape as it descends into its pool below, while retaining its contact with the bedrock
  6. Horsetail – usually a narrow fall, where the descending water maintains contact with the bedrock most of the time
  7. Plunge – fast-flowing water drops down in a vertical flow, completely losing contact with the cliff face
    A Plunge waterfall can also be classified as Punchbowl, where the water initially flows in a constricted form before spreading out into a wide pool at the bottom of the fall
  8. Segmented – watercourse is segmented into several distinct stream beds, each forming its own waterfall
  9. Tiered or multi-step – height of the waterfall is divided on several distinct steps

Some classifications may also include:

  • Frozen – any fall which contains ice, or where the water haz frozen solid.
  • Scree (or talus)- where the water flows over loose rocks or boulders, which are often accumulated at the base of another, steeper waterfall. These are fundamentally the same as a cascade.
  • Slide – a shallow waterfall that may look more like a rapid, with the water glides down a relatively low angle slope and maintaining continuous contact with bedrock. These can also be classified as a (shallow) cascade.

For a bit more complexity and confusion, a single waterfall can be classified as more than one type.

What are the highest waterfalls?

The tallest ten waterfalls in the world by overall height are:

NameOverall heightVertical DropLocation
Angel Falls979m807mBolivar, Venezuela
Tugela Falls948m411mKwaZulu-Natal, South Africa
Tres Hermanas Falls914mN/AJunin, Peru
Olo’upena Falls900mN/AHawaii, USA
Yumbilla Falls896mN/AAmazonas, Peru
Skorga875mN/AMøre og Romsdal, Norway
Vinnufossen860m420mMøre og Romsdal, Norway
Balåifossen850m452mVestland, Norway
Mattenbachfall840m*N/ALauterbrunnental, Switzerland
Pu’uka’oku Falls840mN/AHawaii, USA
James Bruce Falls840mN/ABritish Columbia, Canada
* Mattenbachfall has been surveyed as being 930m in height.

The tallest waterfalls by vertical drop are:

NameOverall heightVertical DropLocation
Angel Falls979m807mBolivar, Venezuela
Waihilau Falls792m792mHawaii, USA
Mongefossen773m773mMøre og Romsdal, Norway
Manawainui Falls719m719mHawaii, USA
Kjeragfossen715m715mRogaland, Norway
Tågfossen710m710mMøre og Romsdal, Norway
Ølmåfossen710m710mMøre og Romsdal, Norway
Salto Kukenaam674m674mBolivar, Venezuela
Langfoss612m612mVestland, Norway
Tverrgrovfossen610m610mMøre og Romsdal, Norway
Salto de Iguapo600m600mLauterbrunnental, Switzerland

Did you know?

  • The noise from Victoria Falls in Zambia and Zimbabwe is so loud that it can be heard from 40km (25 miles) away!
  • Angel Falls in Venezuela is so high that the water usually turns to mist before it reaches the bottom.
  • There are underground waterfalls in caves, as well as underwater waterfalls. The tallest underwater waterfall is the Denmark Strait cataract, which has a drop of about 3500 metres.
  • The tallest man-made waterfall in the world is has a drop of 165m, and was created by the Romans in 271 BC. Called the Cascata delle Marmore, it was constructed to divert stagnant waters from wetlands over a natural cliff.

More information on waterfalls