Waterfalls are one of nature’s most demonstrative wonders, sometimes plunging to vertical depths that create stunningly violent sprays. But what happens when there isn’t enough water to fuel the fall?
Several world-renowned waterfalls around the globe have either dried up entirely or are functioning at a fraction of their previous power. This can negatively impact everything from local tourist trade to important ecological functions that benefit an area’s flora and fauna.
“While some waterfalls are spring-born or spring-fed, the majority are reliant on precipitation,” says Adam Sawyer, an outdoor photographer and guide based in the Pacific Northwest whose published guidebooks include “Hiking Waterfalls Oregon, Hiking Waterfalls Washington” and the forthcoming “Hiking Waterfalls Idaho.” “With many regions seeing a reduction in snowpack and extreme or prolonged drought conditions, many waterfalls are reducing to little more than exaggerated trickles, or even drying up entirely.”
Climate change is often fingered as a culprit, causing both damaging floods and prolonged droughts. It can take years to fully realize the deleterious effects of precipitation shortfalls, and by 2025, half the world’s population is likely to live in a water-stressed area, according to the World Health Organization.
“Waterfalls are just another geological canary in the coal mine,” Sawyer says. “Hopefully, we will find a way to correct the course sooner rather than later. In the meantime, there may never be a better time to get out and observe these natural wonders, in order to garner a deeper understanding and appreciation for them.”
Here are six famous waterfalls that slowed to a trickle when drought set in.
1. Victoria Falls, Zambia/Zimbabwe
Victoria Falls on the Zambezi River in southern Africa began to dry up in 2019. The 0.62-mile (1-kilometer) waterfall, which is more than twice as high and wide as Niagara Falls, typically has a flow of 3,569 feet (1,088 meters) per second, but it slowed to a trickle during the 2019 dry season, which, in that region of Africa, occurs from May to November.
Some experts point to more frequent droughts and rising water temperatures that, in 2019, caused 115,443 gallons (437,000 liters) of water to evaporate every second. The good news — for the tourism trade, local flora and fauna, and downstream dams that supply electricity to the area — is that the waterfall’s near stoppage was probably temporary. Historical data from the Zambezi River Authority, which monitors the falls, reports that Victoria Falls are still not as low as they were in 1995 and 1996 when record drought conditions existed. As of fall 2021, Victoria Falls was flowing, but not fully, because of less-than-anticipated rainfall rates.
2. Yosemite Falls, California
A haunting image from August 2007 shows a stone-dry surface where Yosemite Falls once fell 2,425 feet (739 meters) in a gravitational tumble toward the valley floor. Again in 2021, this famous waterfall in California’s Yosemite National Park dried up. While nary a drop currently is flowing over its granite ledge, Yosemite Falls is expected to return to its previous glory — as long as winter rainfall totals hold.
The usual winter snowpack in the region was low in 2021, at less than half of normal, says Dylan Gallagher, who founded White Wolf Private Tours and frequently takes travelers on private hikes to Yosemite Falls. “Water was scarce in late summer 2021,” Gallagher says, “and the waterfalls in Yosemite depend entirely on the previous winter’s precipitation levels. Once winter passes, you will more or less know what the waterfalls will look like in late September.”
3. Igauzu Falls, Argentina/Brazil
The world’s largest waterfall, Igauzu Falls, is now a ghost of its former self. Located on the border of the Argentine province of Misiones and the Brazilian state of Parana, Igauzu Falls was formed after a prehistoric volcanic eruption. It spans 1.7 miles (2.7 kilometers) and includes 275 individual waterfalls. In the past, Igauzu Falls had water rushing over its ledge at 459,090 cubic feet (13,000 cubic meters) per second — the liquid equivalent of five Olympic-size swimming pools. By the spring of 2020, the waterfall’s flow had waned to 10,170 cubic feet (288 cubic meters) per second, which edged out its previous low-water record in 2006.
4. Thalehaha Falls, Rubio Canyon, California
Less than an hour from Los Angeles, Rubio Canyon has a series of waterfalls whose views reward the determined hiker willing to scramble over rough terrain. At an elevation of 2,371 feet (722 meters), Thalehaha Falls is Rubio Canyon’s main attraction, besting several other waterfalls because of its own rugged beauty and its views of Los Angeles in the distance. Thalehaha Falls, which drops 80 feet (24 meters) to the canyon floor, was once a destination so inviting that in the late 1800s a Swiss-style railway, known as Mount Lowe Railway, was built to take viewers up the steep inclines. But the system didn’t make money, eventually fell into disrepair and was abandoned. A similar fate befell a once-famous restaurant, pavilion, zoo and hotels built to house tourists drawn to Rubio Canyon. Several rock slides have now buried the lower portion of Thalehaha Falls, and some of its downstream waterfalls. Currently, Thalehaha Falls only flows for a short time after a deluge and remains dry most of the year.
5. Le Saut du Doubs, Villers-Le-Lac, France/Switzerland
The year 2020 was not a banner year for Le Saut du Doubs waterfall. Although prone to seasonal lows, the waterfall — the highest waterfall along the France-Switzerland border — dried up nearly three weeks earlier than normal. The transnational waterfall is located in a forested lakeside region that draws travelers from around the world, but in the summer of 2020, it completely dried up for several weeks because of an ongoing drought in the area. The same thing happened in 2018, when the falls also temporarily dried up.
6. Tis Abay/Blue Nile Falls, Ethiopia
The famed Blue Nile Falls in Ethiopia are, as the name suggests, located at the head of the Blue Nile River — one of two tributaries that feed into the Nile River, which meanders through 11 countries to empty into the Mediterranean Sea. Also called Tis Abay, which means “great smoke” in Amharic, the 150-foot-high (45-meter-high) falls create a sizable mist and have become an Ethiopian tourist attraction. However, during the dry season that runs from January to March each year, the famous falls dry to a trickle — or stop running entirely — which makes August to October (usually the peak of the rainy season) an ideal time to see the falls at their most powerful. Unless, that is, water is diverted to power a hydroelectric dam that is fed by Blue Nile waters, and which is set to fuel political and environmental conflict between Ethiopia and downstream countries like Sudan and Egypt that rely on the Blue Nile.
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