Waterfalls are a natural source of wonder and entertainment. We hike to see them, to cross them, to dive them, to admire them. They are a destination that we seek for a variety of reasons, and we all know of at least one of the five famous falls of the earth: Niagara Falls, found in North America, Angel Falls and Iguazu Falls, both found in South America, Victoria Falls, found in Africa, and lastly, Olo’upena Falls in the Hawaiian Islands. Perhaps you have had the blessing to witness one of these in person, but even if you have not, there’s a good chance that you have seen a more local waterfall near you. Besides their captivating appearance in nature, waterfalls have an important impact on its nearby ecosystem and economy, and they have been shown to improve mental and physical well being in people.
There are so many different perspectives on what counts as a waterfall that there is not an official total of waterfalls found on Earth. In general, a waterfall is a body of water that falls over a ledge and forms a pool at the bottom. A waterfall is also known as a cascade. To give you an idea of how many waterfalls are around the world, there are over four hundred counted in California alone. Why is this observation important? With waterfalls being so prevalent around the planet, even the smallest one has a big impact on the global ecosystem.
Have you ever noticed that waterfalls tend to be the foreground against smoothed out rock? Bodies of water erode soft rock, leaving only hard rock, such as granite in its wake. The rock is eroded by small particles and pebbles, known as sediment, carried at a high velocity.
Waterfalls do more for its surrounding environment than break away rock surfaces. The spray from the falling water hits a zoned area around the drop of the fall and the pool at the bottom. This mist carries minerals from the natural water which helps plant life grow, the most familiar form being moss. Moss does not utilize water like most plants, but rather soaks it in like a sponge. With the constant spray from a waterfall, moss becomes over-absorbed and excess water escapes the spray zone, widening the waterfalls effect on its ecosystem. More plants being able to grow means more nutrients for the soil, which creates a healthy cycle of life.
All of these effects on its local ecosystem creates a fragile environment, which is why a lot of the falls that are tourist attractions have a path built around the spray zone, or have signage expressing to not touch the water or the land surrounding it.
Waterfalls around the globe attract tourists. Angel Falls brings in about 900,000 people a year, and it is very difficult to access. Yosemite National Park in California, which is the home of several famous waterfalls, brings in close to four million people a year. Even Mount Rainier National Park, which does not home any famous waterfalls is marked as one of the top places to view cascades in the state of Washington and creates about thirty three million dollars in revenue for its surrounding communities annually per million of visitors. Last year, Mount Rainier National Park had about two million visitors, meaning it brought in about sixty six million dollars for the Washington economy. That is incredible!
Why do so many people visit waterfalls, big or small? It turns out that studies show we are drawn to them for health benefits. For one, the sound of waterfalls is soothing to us. Many famous sleep-aid devices feature a setting that sounds like running water. Watching the waters course is also a psychological aid in lowering stress levels, and is found to be similar to hypnosis techniques. Let us go back to how waterfalls affect the ecosystem. The mist cleanses and deposits natural minerals in the air, which means cleaner, healthier air to breathe.
The most interesting health benefit of all involves the balance of ions. Our bodies tend to carry more positively charged ions called cations. The earth is full of anions, or negatively charged ions. One of the most important lessons in science is that opposites attract. When we step barefoot onto grass or dirt, the anions in the earth balance out the cations in our bodies. As the ions become balanced, serotonin levels in our brains increase. Serotonin is also known as the dream hormone, and essentially speaking, makes us happier. Moving water, such as cascades, carry an abundance of anions as it travels through the earth, and with the force of the water landing into the pool at the bottom of the fall, a lot of these negative ions are released, causing a spike in serotonin levels.
Waterfalls are crucial to the health of our planet and our bodies. More research is being developed looking into additional health benefits of moving water, and the shape of rock formations will be under constant change as long as there is water to change it. Waterfalls will dry up, new ones will form, but one thing will always remain the same: we will continue to be fascinated by them.