What Created Niagara Falls and why is it Eroding Year After Year?

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Niagara Falls is one of the most visited sites in the world. The marvellous cascades of the falls attract thousands of visitors each year. So how did they originate? Did the ancient glacial period form this giant waterfall? A great concern for the environmentalists is the rate of erosion which the Niagara Falls is going through. The current rate of erosion of Niagara Falls is about 1 foot (0.30m) per year.

In the last two hundred years Niagara Falls has retreated from Lake Ontario toward Lake Erie at the rate of five feet annually, washing down the rocks of the bed of the falls. If this process has been going on at the same rate since the end of the last glacial period, about seven thousand years were needed to move Niagara Falls from the mouth of the gorge at Queenston to its present position. The assumption that the quantity of water moving through the gorge has been uniform since the end of the Ice Age is the basis of this calculation, and therefore, it was concluded, seven thousand years may constitute “the maximum length of time since the birth of the falls.”

Therefore, the time that has elapsed since the end of the last glacial period must have been even shorter than reckoned. Geologists regard the Great Lakes of America as having been formed at the end of the Ice Age when the continental glacier retreated and the depressions freed from the glacier became lakes. In the beginning, when immense masses of water were released by the retreat of the continental glacier, the rate of movement of Niagara Falls must have been much more rapid; the time estimate “may need significant reduction,” and is sometimes lowered to five thousand years.

The erosion and sedimentation on the shores and the bottom of Lake Michigan also suggest a lapse of time counted in thousands, but not in tens of thousands, of years. Also, the result of paleontological research in America carries evidence which constitutes as stated by A. Keith, “A guarantee that before the last period of glaciation, modern man, in the form of that highly developed race, the American Indian, was living on the eastern seaboard of North America.”

Geologists have tried to find the time of the end of the last glacial period by measuring the detritus carried by rivers from the glaciers and the deposits of detritus in lakes. The quantity carried by the Rhone from the glaciers of the Alps and the amount on the bottom of the Lake of Geneva, through which the Rhone flows, were calculated, and from the figures obtained the time and velocity of the retreat of the glacial sheet of the last glacial period were estimated. According to the Swiss scholar Francois Forel, twelve thousand years have passed since the time the ice sheet of the last glacial period began to melt, an unexpectedly low figure, as it was thought that the ice age ended thirty to fifty thousand years ago.

Such calculations suffer from being only indirect evaluations; and since the velocity at which the glacial mud had been deposited in the lakes was not constant and the amount varied, the mud must have assembled on the bottom of a lake at a faster rate in the beginning when the glaciers were larger; and if the Ice Age terminated suddenly, the deposition of detritus would have been much heavier at first, and there would be little analogy to the accumulation of detritus from the seasonal melting of snow in the Alps.

It is assumed that with the advent of the last glacial period the Indians retreated southward, returning to the north when the ice uncovered the ground and when the Great Lakes emerged, the basin of the St. Lawrence was formed, and Niagara Falls began its retreat toward Lake Erie. If the end of the last glacial period occurred only a few thousand years ago, in historical times or at a time when the art of writing may have been originated, then that period could have been the starting point when the Niagara Falls started to retreat.

W. Upham, an American Geologist, dates the up rise of the St. Lawrence basin 6,000 to 7,000 years ago; the St. Lawrence must have been freed from ice before Niagara Falls could come into full action. Not dissimilar figures were obtained from the retreat of the Falls of St. Anthony on the Mississippi at Minneapolis. However Keith thinks that the development of the human skull went through a process of advance and retrogression during exceedingly long ages have been already employed in the centers of ancient civilization, the records written in rocks by nature and the records written by man must give a coordinated picture.

Therefore, in order to find out the origin of Niagara Falls, one needs to investigate the traditions and the literary records of ancient man and compare them with the records of nature.

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