More than 100 years ago today, a 63-year-old Michigan schoolteacher took the first ride ever down Niagara Falls in a barrel. Annie Edson Taylor may have survived, but the future will tell if the waterfalls available for such (now-illegal) escapades will. Here are a few threats to waterfalls we can’t ignore if we want to preserve these natural wonders.
Last year, Yosemite Falls went dry for five months. While the falls have always been ephemeral, meaning they flow seasonally, California’s severe drought had stopped them two months earlier than usual in June until December rains started them again a month late. In The Atlantic, outdoorsman and author Michael Lanza wondered if the world’s sixth-highest falls would actually disappear, with climate change leading to less and less snowfall. Snowpack in the Cascade Range has already decreased 15 to 30 percent in the past 70 years.
“In the words of Yosemite National Park hydrologist Jim Roche: ‘Snow is…an endangered resource,’” Lanza writes. “Climate models offer different prognoses for the future of snow, depending largely on what steps society takes in coming years to reduce carbon dioxide emissions. Unfortunately, humanity has steadily emitted more CO2 than even the worst-case scenarios in forecasts from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), the Nobel Peace Prize-winning United Nations body of more than two thousand scientists researching climate change.”
Although renewable hydroelectric power does important work in cutting the demand for fossil fuels, the technique sadly threatens our world’s waterfalls. For instance, Iceland gets 75 percent of its electricity from hydropower—at a cost to the pristine landscape. Excessive dam building has stopped or slowed to a trickle almost half of the waterfalls in the country since 2003, says artist Ruri, and much of the power generated goes toward multinational aluminum companies. She created Endangered Waters, an exhibit of 52 photographs of Iceland’s waterfalls alongside their sounds, to preserve their memory.
3. Water Pollution
El Salto Falls was once called the Niagara Falls of Mexico, but now thick foam from agricultural and industrial waste chokes out the once-great waterfall. Located just below Guadalajara, “the contamination reaches epic proportions,” in the words of the Earth Island Journal’s Jeff Conant. An eight-year-old died two days after falling in the river nearby from a septic blood infection and heavy metal poisoning; cancer rates are unbelievably high in the area as well.
“These falls were the pride of Jalisco,” Inéz García, a 60-year-old resident, tells Conant. “When we first came here, I would lie awake at night enjoying the sound. There was always poverty here, but there was enough to eat—fish, shrimp, mangoes that grew along the river. But what was once a river of life has been turned into a river of death.”
While the waste from oil and gas drilling does indeed create water pollution, which this list already mentions, fracking is a more specific threat to waterfalls that must be recognized. Industry recently started dumping untreated fracking waste a few miles upstream of Niagara Falls.
“We need to change the regulations and stop polluting the waterways in areas of both conventional and unconventional oil and gas exploration,” Avner Vengosh, a Duke University geochemistry professor tells ThinkProgress, “but the problem becomes louder [for fracking] because of the increase in the volume of the wastewater.”
Exploring some waterfalls can cause erosion to the surrounding land and hurt the delicate plants that rely on the falls’ spray to live. Visitors need to be cognizant that they take special care when visiting to avoid these problems, says author of North Carolina Waterfalls Kevin Adams on his website. While this problem seems less extreme than the others, doing things like avoiding hopping across rocks or grabbing moss for balance protects the falls’ natural beauty and ecosystem.