October 13, 2012

The Big Plunge

In the minds of many, Niagara Falls is tied to weddings and barrels. The wedding connection dates back to 1804 when Napoleon’s younger brother, Jerome Bonaparte, brought his new bride to witness the thundering falls. Since, so many couples have chosen to start their new lives together here that has become known as the “Honeymoon Capital of the World.”

While you could say you took the plunge by getting married, it’s the daredevils that literally take the plunge—some to their death—at Niagara. The first to succeed, Annie Taylor, went over in an airtight wooden barrel in 1901. She was followed by Bobbie Leach in a steel barrel, “Smiling Jean” Lussier in a rubber ball, Nathan Boya in a ball-like contraption, Steven Trotter in a barrel encased in inner tubes and many others. Think twice about making the attempt yourself, though: the fine is $10,000.

What’s the appeal for brides, grooms and barrel passengers?

The water.  Millions of gallons of water rocket over Niagara Falls every minute, approximately 750,000 gallons or 3,160 tons every second. To put it another way, the water falls at a rate of 32 feet per second, hitting the base of the falls with 280 tons of force at the American and Bridal Veil Falls and 2,509 tons of force at the Horseshoe Falls. That’s enough force to produce more than 4 million kilowatts of electricity.

But, it’s also the majesty and the beauty. Although approximately 500 waterfalls are taller than the three at Niagara Falls (Angel Falls in Venezuela is the tallest), few can equal Niagara in volume. The awe-inspiring view is compounded by the verdant green, the byproduct of dissolved salts and “rock flour” (finely ground rock generated by the erosive force of the river), color of the river’s waters.

The surrounding grounds add to the splendor. Niagara Falls State Park, the nation’s oldest state park, was designed by landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted, the man who also designed New York City’s Central Park. (Note: Niagara Falls straddles the United States-Canada border and, as referenced above, is actually comprised of three waterfalls. American and Bridal Veil sit on the U.S. side while Horseshoe is squarely on the Canadian side. The 400-acre Niagara Falls State Park is part of the New York state park system and is obviously on the U.S. side.)

Beauty isn’t everything. From a geological standpoint, Niagara has a compelling story, one still in the making.  The falls were formed when glaciers receded at the end of the last ice age, creating the Great Lakes. Water from the lakes carved a path through the Niagara Escarpment en route to the Atlantic Ocean and, in the process, the three waterfalls of Niagara came to be.

However, the rushing waters move with such force that Niagara Falls is constantly eroding. The falls have receded seven miles in the last 12,500 years and may be the fastest moving waterfall system in the world. Due to flow control, the rate of erosion has been slowed to one foot per year, but still, scientists estimate at this present rate, the remaining 20 miles to Lake Erie will no longer exist 50,000 years from now.

Image Credit: Photos.com

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