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Self-formed bedrock waterfalls


Waterfalls are inspiring landforms that set the pace of landscape evolution as a result of bedrock incision1,2,3. They communicate changes in sea level or tectonic uplift throughout landscapes2,4 or stall river incision, disconnecting landscapes from downstream perturbations3,5. Here we use a flume experiment with constant water discharge and sediment feed to show that waterfalls can form from a planar, homogeneous bedrock bed in the absence of external perturbations. In our experiment, instabilities between flow hydraulics, sediment transport and bedrock erosion lead to undulating bedforms, which grow to become waterfalls. We propose that it is plausible that the origin of some waterfalls in natural systems can be attributed to this intrinsic formation process and we suggest that investigations to distinguish self-formed from externally forced waterfalls may help to improve the reconstruction of Earth history from landscapes.

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Fig. 1: Repeating waterfalls formed in relatively homogeneous rock.
Fig. 2: Bedrock channel evolution.
Fig. 3: Waterfall formation.

Data availability

All topographic and water surface profiles are available in the Supplementary Information.


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We thank J. Preimesberger for assistance with preliminary experiments, R. DiBiase, W. Dietrich, N. Izumi, G. Parker, J. Prancevic, J. Turowski and M. Yokokawa for discussion, and A. Wickert for a review. We acknowledge funding from the National Science Foundation (grant EAR-1147381 to M.P.L. and a Graduate Research Fellowship to J.S.S.), NASA (grant 12PGG120107 to M.P.L.), and the Alexander von Humboldt Foundation (postdoctoral fellowship to J.S.S.). This work includes data services provided by the OpenTopography Facility with support from the National Science Foundation under NSF Award Numbers 1557484, 1557319 and 1557330, and EAR-1043051.

Reviewer information

Nature thanks Andrew Wickert and the other anonymous reviewer(s) for their contribution to the peer review of this work.

Author information

Authors and Affiliations



J.S.S. and M.P.L. designed the study and wrote the manuscript with input from B.M.F. J.S.S. and B.M.F. performed the experiment with input from M.P.L.

Corresponding author

Correspondence to Joel S. Scheingross.

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The authors declare no competing interests.

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Extended data figures and tables

Extended Data Fig. 1 Experimental set-up.

a, Schematic of experimental set-up at t = 0 h. Precut steps visible downstream of the test section extent eroded rapidly to the fixed base level and did not influence the experiment or the development of cyclic steps (which developed throughout the test section). b, Photograph (taken by B.M.F.) of set-up after completion of the experiment.

Extended Data Fig. 2 Experiment photographs showing canyon incision.

ae, Progressive incision and canyon formation with time. The dashed line highlights the x = 2.3 m cross-section; the arrow points downstream (a 15-cm-long pen is shown to give the scale). Photographs were taken (by authors) after removal of deposited sediment while the experiment was paused. f, Field example of a canyon with similar morphology to our experiment from Pleasant Creek, Capitol Reef National Park, Utah, USA (photo credit: Bret Edge).

Extended Data Fig. 3 Detail view of bedrock channel evolution.

af, Time series of bedrock channel (black) and water surface (blue) profiles showing waterfall plunge-pool formation at x ≈ 4 m. Grey lines show previous bedrock surfaces spaced at about 0.3-h intervals and correspond to times shown in Fig. 2a; grey shading denotes areas of deposited sediment. We note that water surface profiles correspond to times about 0.1 h later than bedrock profiles and no water surface profile is available for f. Raw data are provided in Supplementary Data 1.

Extended Data Fig. 4 Relative vertical erosion rates at the waterfall brink and the waterfall plunge-pool floor.

a, Erosion rate versus time for the upstream waterfall centred at x = 4.3. b, Erosion rate versus time for the downstream waterfall centred at x = 6.5. During periods of waterfall formation (2.4 h < t < 3.1 h and 2.1 h < t < 2.8 h for the upstream and downstream waterfall, respectively) erosion at the pool floor (Efloor) outpaced that at the brink (Ebrink), causing an increase in waterfall height. As waterfall plunge pools deepened, their erosion rates slowed below that of the upstream brink, thereby decreasing waterfall height and destroying the original waterfall.

Extended Data Fig. 5 Field examples of putative autogenic waterfalls formed in concert with externally forced riverbed steepening.

a, Lidar shaded relief map of Yosemite Valley, California, USA. b, Detailed view of potentially autogenic waterfalls upstream of Bridalveil Falls (data distributed via OpenTopography35). We note that waterfalls do not align with macroscale jointing or fractures visible in the lidar. ce, Lidar-extracted long profiles above Bridalveil (c, d) and Upper Yosemite Falls (e). Coloured dots show channel slopes above 30° calculated across a 3-pixel moving window (horizontal length scale of about 3 m). Waterfalls frequently occur at slopes less than 50°, similar to our experiment.

Extended Data Fig. 6 Field examples of putative autogenic waterfalls formed in steady-state landscapes.

a, Shaded relief map of the Central Sierra Madre Block of the San Gabriel Mountains, California, USA, showing locations of the Eaton and Rubio canyons. b, Simplified geological map of Rubio and Eaton canyons after ref. 34, mixed intrusive rocks are dominated by Cretaceous and Triassic granitoids. c, d, Detailed lidar shaded relief maps showing potentially autogenic waterfalls in the Eaton and Rubio canyons (data courtesy of the National Center for Airborne Laser Mapping (NCALM) and available in Supplementary Data 2). e, f, Lidar-extracted long profile for Eaton and Rubio canyons with coloured dots showing channel slopes above 30° calculated across a 3-pixel moving window (horizontal length scale of about 3 m).

Extended Data Table 1 Elevation and erosion rates of waterfalls

Supplementary information

Supplementary Data 1

Laser scans of bedrock channel profiles, sediment deposition, and water surface profiles over the course of the experiment.

Supplementary Data 2

Zipped file containing gridded, digital elevation models of bare-Earth Lidar data for Rubio Canyon and Eaton Canyon (San Gabriel Mountains). Data were collected and processed by the National Center for Airborne Laser Mapping (NCALM) in fall 2009.

Video 1

Upstream autogenic waterfall. Video showing the presence of a waterfall with detached jet at x ~ 4 m at t ~ 3.2 hr. Video is shot primarily from an overhead perspective looking directly down at the experiment. Note that entire surface on which the flume rests (including, for example, the flume sides and the visible measuring tape) is tilted 19.5% with respect to horizontal.

Video 2

Downstream autogenic waterfall. Video showing the presence of a waterfall with detached jet at x ~ 6 m at t ~ 3.2 hr. Video is shot primarily from an overhead perspective looking directly down at the experiment. Note that entire surface on which the flume rests (including, for example, the flume sides and the visible measuring tape) is tilted 19.5% with respect to horizontal.

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Scheingross, J.S., Lamb, M.P. & Fuller, B.M. Self-formed bedrock waterfalls. Nature 567, 229–233 (2019).

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