All you need to know – Waterfalls of Finland

About the waterfalls of Finland

What is a waterfall? How are they formed? What kind of waterfalls there are in Finland, and what has been their role in the history of our country? In this article we try to answer these and many other questions regarding the free waterfalls of Finland.


What is a waterfall

To begin with, it is relevant to ask, what is a waterfall?

Actually there is no official definition for the term waterfall. Some people count only the completely free-falling rapids as waterfalls. Other people may count even shallow rapids as "waterfalls", when there is enough water in the river.

Of course, what is common to all the waterfalls is that the water descends vertically in the course of river on a short distance. But besides that, waterfalls are always unique sights. I have defined "a waterfall" in the following way:

If you look at a cascade or rapid at a nearly direct angle, and you still think it looks like a waterfall from this perspective, then it can be considered as a waterfall.

This can be visualized, for example, with the waterfall of Kemppilä's Myllykoski in Ruokolahti (see photo below). Although the waterfall descends to the lake on a slope of 45 degrees – so it's not even close to a vertical drop – it's an unambiguous waterfall when looked at from straight ahead:

Kemppilän Myllykoski

In Finnish, northern waterfalls are often called by the name "köngäs". The word "köngäs" is derived from the word keävngis in Sámi language, which means waterfall or steep rapid. Another Sámi word with the same meaning is linkka that is used in the names of some of our most northern waterfalls. For example, there is a waterfall called Auttiköngäs in Rovaniemi, and Kuerlinkka Falls in Kolari.

The crest of the waterfall is the place in the river, where the water goes over the cliff ledge and starts to fall. That means, it's the highest vertical level in the waterfall.

Falls are categorized in different types by their geology and other (more or less) common features. The waterfall types used on this site can be found in this article.

Finally, of course, there is also a Wikipedia definition (6.4.2016) for a waterfall:

"A waterfall is a place where water flows over a vertical drop in the course of a stream or river." [1]


How waterfalls are formed

Waterfalls are typically formed in places where a river crosses over different layers of rock. Each layer has a different rate of erosion; over resistant bedrock, erosion happens slowly, while over soft rock, the erosion occurs more rapidly.

The waterfall is often formed at the joint of two rock layers. Over time, the soft rock is cut by the water flow, which creates a steep slope beyond the hard rock layer. Depending on the geology of the stream bed, the slope can be steepened, until the waterfall becomes vertical. Where the falling water lands, a so-called plunge pool is formed. This pool then widens and gets deeper, as the waterfall gets taller and carves itself deeper into the soft rock layer. [2]

Below the waterfall, the splash backs and the widening plunge pool cause the soft rock layer to be cut off below the waterfall's ledge (made of hard rock). When that happens, a cave-like formation is formed behind the fall. Eventually the ledge over the cave will collapse, and the waterfall "takes a step" upstream. Vertical waterfalls thus often retreat back in the river bed, forming steep gorges or canyons downstream. For example, the famous Niagara Falls in North America are formed this way. Out of the Finnish waterfalls, maybe the most widely known example is Pihtsusköngäs in Enontekiö.

Formation of waterfall is visualized in the schema below:

Waterfall formation
Waterfall formation schema. Source: Wikipedia Commons.

Pihtsusköngäs
Pihtsusköngäs in Enontekiö in July 2011. Notice the cave behind the waterfall and steep gorge.

Waterfalls can be formed also over so-called fault lines. Fault lines are planar fractures (or discontinuity) in the bedrock, resulting from large displacements within the Earth's crust by the action of plate tectonic forces. A waterfall can be formed when the stream bed of a river meets a fault line. For example, Isterinkoski in Muhos was formed when the bedrock sank in the rift known as Muhosmuodostuma. Another good example of a waterfall formed over a fault line is Korkeakoski in Kuopio.

Sometimes, a waterfall can be formed more or less accidentally by human intervention. For example, Koivuköngäs in Posio was formed in 1893, after a log floating accident. The waterfall was formed after the people who were watching over a wooden floating dam in Kurttajoki River fell asleep after heavy drinking. The water then broke a new way into its current stream bed, forming a waterfall on an existing cliff. Also Härkäahonkoski in Haapajärvi was formed after the stream bed of Kuonanjoki was mined during the constrcution of Hautaperä artificial lake.

The water of all waterfalls is, of course, originally rain water. The rain water, on the other hand, has evaporated from oceans by the sun's energy. When the water vapor rises up, it gets cooler, and becomes eventually condensed in the form of clouds that may move above inland. Due to air turbulence in the clouds the water droplets collide and become larger, until they eventually fall down. The rain water then creates creeks, rivers and larger water systems on the surface of the Earth. Drainage basin is an area where all the surface water from rain (and melting snow) is converged to a single point, like a river or waterfall. The larger the drainage basin of a waterfall is, the larger the flow rate of the waterfall.

As a summary, many factors take part in the formation processes of waterfalls. They start from geological and hydrological factors, supplemented with other environmental factors and sometimes even actions of human beings. Probably because of that, waterfalls have a very wide diversity as a nature sights; no two falls are the same.

More information about the waterfall formation processes and hydrology is available, for example, in this article on the "World of Waterfalls" -site.


History of Finnish waterfalls

"Three, the water-falls in number,
Three in number, inland oceans,
Three in number, lofty mountains,
Shooting to the vault of heaven.
Hallapyora's near to Yaemen,
Katrakoski in Karyala;
Imatra, the falling water,
Tumbles, roaring, into Wuoksi."

- Elias Lönnrot (Rune III in Kalevala, the national epic of Finland)

Waterfalls and rapids have played an important role in the history of Finland and in the welfare of Finnish people. The roar of violent water, rushing down a river in white foam, has fascinated human minds for centuries, gathering admirers from far away. Already centuries ago, several falls were used to power watermills that were used to mill corn or cut logs, to produce food and timber for the society.

Watermills were the most common type of mills in Finland until the early 20th century, after which cheap electricity gradually made them obsolete. Some old watermills are preserved in their original place even today, including the norse mills near the waterfalls of Komulanköngäs (see below) and Äkäslinkka.

Komulanköngäs
The waterfall of Komulanköngäs in Hyrynsalmi. Above the fall stands a preserved norse mill, built in 1888.

Since the end of the 19th century, Finnish waterfalls have also played a big role in the industrialization of the country. According to Risto Lounema, author and nature photographer, Finland has been famous for its falls and rapids, many of which have then been, though, "sacrificed on the altar of welfare". [8]

One of our largest rapids was Imatrankoski rapids, being among the most famous nature sights in Finland in the 1800s, until it was blocked in 1929 for hydropower production. Other famous waterfalls or rapids lost to hydropower include, for example, the 22-metre-high Kyröskoski waterfall ("Hallapyora near to Yaemen") in Hämeenkyrö and the 30-metre-high Aittokoski ("Imatra of Kainuu") in Suomussalmi. More information about our utilized waterfalls can be found in the article "Rapid shows in Finland".

In addition to the hydroelectric utilization, Finland has lost many spectacular waterfalls due to coercion. Few people seem to remember what kind of treasures of flowing water Finland was forced to cede for Soviet Union after Winter War (1939–40) and Continuation War (1941–44). By the signing of Moscow Armistice (in September 1944, ending Continuation War), Finland lost waterfalls such as Jänisköngäs in the Kutsajoki River in Salla, Kolttaköngäs in the Paatsjoki River in Petsamo, and Mäntykoski in Kuusamo – just to mention some most widely known ones.

On the other hand, it's difficult to estimate, how many of even those falls would have survived to the 21th century, if Finland hadn't been forced to cede the areas of Karelia, Salla and Petsamo for Soviet Union. When taking into account the massive hydroelectric utilization done in Finland at the midpoint of 1900s, we can easily hypothesize a scenario, where at least some of the waterfalls left in the ceded areas, would have been later utilized for industrialization. Still, the loss due to coercion and dictated peace treaty, is always a tragedy.

Jänisköngäs
Jänisköngäs flows in the nature reserve of River Kutsajoki, on the former area of Salla ceded for Soviet Union in 1940. Photo by: Petri Niikko.

Mäntykoski
Waterfall of Mäntykoski north of Paanajärvi Lake in the 1930s. Photo by: Kuusamo home archive, collection of Yrjö Kortelainen.

Despite of all the lost waterfalls I still want to comfort you that fortunately there still are – and surely always will be – many magnificent waterfalls in Finland, and for them this website is dedicated. Actually nature conservation saved many of them from utilization in the late 1900s, which happened, for instance, in the so-called rapid wars in Kuusamo in the 1960s. [3] Later, the act on the protection of rapids (koskiensuojelulaki, 35/1987) was laid down to protect Finland's most valuable rapids and falls from all kind of waterway construction. Among those are the famous waterfalls of Jyrävä and Kiutaköngäs in Kuusamo, as well as, for example, Auttiköngäs in Rovaniemi.

Waterfalls have always been, and still are an important part of the nature of Finland. Ultimately, the future generations are responsible for taking care of them, which will require common will from all the people. I personally believe that if we can take care of our waterfalls, we can take a better care also of ourselves. In the end, a healthy and rich nature is a vital resource for both Finland and its inhabitants.


Waterfalls of Finland today

Today, most of our natural waterfalls flow in the northern parts of Finland, although there are some falls even in the southernmost parts of the country. On average Finnish waterfalls are small when compared to the largest waterfalls of Norway, the USA or even Sweden. This is a result from quite flat land of our country. On the other hand, we have clearly more waterfalls when compared to some other countries in continental Europe, such as Denmark and the Netherlands. In addition, our waterfalls have a great diversity, and practically all types of waterfalls are found in Finland.

According to my knowledge, the highest series of waterfalls in Finland today are Kitsiputous Falls in Enontekiö, with an estimated total drop height of 100 metres. There is not, however, an easy way to define the highest waterfall unambiguously, as we have explained in our FAQ-section. If the definition is restricted to only free-falling waterfalls, the best answer is probably Pihtsusköngäs with a total drop height of 17 metres. In contrast, the tallest waterfall on Earth is reportedly Angel Falls in Venezuela with no less than 979 metres.

As mentioned at the start of this article, there is a worldwide-known classification system used for waterfalls, based on their geology and other common features. According to our findings, the most common types of waterfalls in Finland are cascades and tiered waterfalls. In those types of waterfalls, the water doesn't drop vertically, but descends down the slope in distinct steps. In contrast, there are probably only a few so-called plunge (or "classical") waterfalls in Finland, the most widely known one being probably Pihtsusköngäs, mentioned above. Many of our falls also include features of several different waterfall types; below we have presented some examples with photos.

Varisköngäs
Varisköngäs in Suomussalmi is a good example of a cascade (or scree) waterfall.

Fiellun putous
Fiellu Waterfall in Utsjoki is one of our most significant tiered waterfalls.

Kitsiputous
Kitsiputous Falls in Enontekiö is a series of waterfalls (multi-step), including both plunge falls, tiered walls, and cascades.

The largest waterfalls of Finland are found mostly in the areas of Kainuu, Kuusamo and Käsivarsi Wilderness Area. The large density of waterfalls in these areas is a result from their unique geography and terrain; for example, Käsivarsi Wilderness Area belongs to the Scandinavian Mountains, and the highlands of northern Kuusamo is also part of an old mountain range, so-called Karjalainen liuskevyöhyke ("Karelian slate-zone").

It should be noted, though, that there are some much smaller isolated areas in Finland that have large elevation differences in terrain, resulting in high density of waterfalls. One such area is Korouoma Canyon in Posio that has an exceptional large number of waterfalls foaming in the rivers of its northeastern slope. The non-uniform distribution of waterfalls in Finland can be easily seen from our map service; in some areas there are even "clusters" of waterfalls, whereas many areas have none.

From the map it's also easy to see that surprisingly many of our falls are situated near the border zones. In this regard we can emphasize that although Finland lost many waterfalls in the ceded areas in the wars of 1939–44, we had also some luck. For example, if the ceded part of Salla municipality had been even 10 kilometres bigger in the west, we had possibly lost waterfalls such as Jyrävä and Kiutaköngäs. Today, those falls are among the most spectacular ones in Finland, along with Pihtsusköngäs, Kitsiputous Falls and many other beautiful sights of flowing water.


Health benefits of waterfalls

Through the written history of mankind, waterfalls have been among the most fascinating nature sights on our planet. For example, Niagara Falls in North America gets up to 28 million tourists annually, and even many waterfalls of Finland (such as Jyrävä and Kiutaköngäs) are admired by tens of thousands of annual visitors. Many people also like to build or buy artificial waterfalls and fountains for their gardens, to make their home more cozy and lively.

But why do waterfalls fascinate us? Why are we drawn to see their beauty? And what kind of physical and mental health benefits can they offer us? If we exclude the hydroelectric utilization from the "benefit list" of waterfalls, and take a look at the falls as a genuine nature sights, we can see more clearly what their real values and potential for human lives are.

All living creatures on our planet need liquid water, and according to modern science, the earliest life forms on Earth were developed 3.6 billion years ago at the bottom of oceans. Water, especially flowing water, can then be seen as a life-supporting resource; where there is water, there life can flourish. In waterfalls, the refreshing power of water can be seen in a unique and beautiful form, which makes the observer feel blended with the nature. Maybe because of that, even small waterfalls can reduce stress and relax mind. The large and powerful waterfalls, on the other hand, can remind us with their thunder-like sound and roar, how small we humans are in the scale of nature. As a summary, waterfalls can evoke many kinds of thoughts and feelings in people, sometimes even contradictory ones.

Strömberginkoski
The waterfall of Strömberginkoski in Helsinki is a small and refreshing place to relax.

Reaching waterfalls often requires lengthy walking or hiking trips in the wilderness. Hiking as a hobby is an excellent way to exercise, spend time with friends, and enhance personal welfare. Besides, a visit to a waterfall can take you away from the stress, noise and pollution of urban areas. If a trek to a waterfall requires good physical condition, reaching the fall can make the trip even more memorable, and give a big feeling of success. All of this can have a favorable effect on an individual's physical and mental health.

Govdajohka 2011
On a hiking trip in Käsivarsi Wildernes Area, near the Govdajohka River on July 20th 2011.

The air near the waterfalls is often fresh, because of abundant amount of water moist that can reduce the amounts of dust and pollution in the air. There are also some scientific claims that negative ions that are abundant near the waterfalls, can increase serotonin levels in brains, affecting our mood positively. The negative ions may have even other health benefits, all of them not yet completely known. [4]

More information about waterfall health benefits can be found, for example, here.


Ecological benefits of waterfalls

In addition to the health benefits for humans, waterfalls have a positive effect on the surrounding environment and river ecosystems. As many falls tend to fill their surroundings with water spray, they often have a rich and lush vegetation around them, and sometimes even a local microclimate. [5] In Finland, a good example is the Korkeakoski Waterfall with its surroundings; during summer there is a moist and even cool climate in the canyon, with several rare plant and bird species. Because of its unique nature and ecosystem, the canyon of Korkeakoski belongs to EU's Natura 2000 Network.

In this way, the areas near the waterfalls often have rich ecosystems with high biodiversity. Correspondingly, if a waterfall is destroyed due to human interference (for example, because of hydroelectric utilization), the result can be a dysfunctional ecosystem and great loss of biodiversity.

Waterfalls and rapids also have an ability to keep the river's ecosystem healthy, as they drive more oxygen into the water. In the river ecosystems, dissolved oxygen is an essential factor for all kinds of aquatic life. In addition, many fish species, such as lake trouts, can breed only in the areas of fast flowing water. Therefore, our rapids and waterfalls have an important effect on our country's diversity of fish species. A healthy river ecosystem can produce food for the animals higher in the food chain, also for us humans. Because of this, free rivers with waterfalls are important nature sites to care for; not only because of nature itself, but also because of us.

Korkeakoski
Korkeakoski waterfall with the surrounding canyon is famous for its unique and rich biodiversity. This photo is from summer 2009.


Threats for waterfalls

Despite of their beauty and apparent benefits for both the human health and environment, many our waterfalls have unfortunately met their end at the hands of men. The most common factor in the loss of waterfalls has been the growing energy demand of the developing society and industry, and the lack of alternative energy resources. In Finland, the energy demand resulted in massive scale of hydroelectric utilization of rivers in the early 1900s, which unfortunately didn't leave much room for nature conservation.

Below, I have presented some threats that our waterfalls have met during the last centuries. It's important to remember, though, that the utilization of waterfalls and rapids has never been restricted solely to Finland. The loss of waterfalls as a price of the welfare society has occurred everywhere in the World from 1800s to these days, from Europe to America and Asia.

Log floating

In the 1800s and early 1900s, the growing forest industry in Finland resulted in a large scale of log floating practiced in the creeks and rivers thorough our country. To drive the logs safely through the rivers, at least the largest rapids and waterfalls had to be bypassed or cleaned from the biggest boulders, rocks and other obstacles beforehand. The removal of rocks made some of the rivers look eventually more like artificial channels, than natural streams.

After the log floating ended in Finland in the late 1900s, some of the cleaned rapids have been restored, fortunately, closer to their original state (by bringing rocks back etc.). For example, the rapids of Pitkälänkoski and Maijalankoski in Karjaanjoki River have been restored in 2000s. A lot of work is still to be done, though.

The largest waterfalls were sometimes also bypassed by building wooden dams and log flumes in the river, which made it possible to float the logs past the obstacles safely. Whereas most of the flumes have then been dismantled since 1960s, some of them can still be seen at waterfalls, for example at the waterfall of Auttiköngäs (see below). Although the structures usually didn't stop the flow of water entirely, they impaired the natural beauty of the waterfalls. Because of their cultural historical values, some of the flumes (like the one at Auttiköngäs) have been preserved.

Auttiköngäs
Waterfall of Auttiköngäs and the preserved log flume in Rovaniemi 5.6.2009.

Draining of wetlands

Some waterfalls of Finland have suffered indirectly from the draining of swamps and other wetlands. As swamps have traditionally held a very low property value, they have been drained, for example, to get more fields for crop planting. In Finland the draining has been practiced for agricultural purposes since the 1800s. Today, wetlands are drained mostly for peat extraction, although many of our peat land ecosystems are protected, too.

As many rivers and waterfalls are partly or entirely fed by a water from wetlands, the draining of wetlands may sometimes result in a reduced flow rate in a waterfall. For example, the famous Juveninkoski waterfall in Jämsä has a noticeably smaller volume of water today than it did before the draining of the nearby swamp areas. Actually, the drainage of the nearby Kynnyssuo swamp for peat extraction is still under discussion, although the plan contradicts with the recent treatment- and rehabilitation plan of the Nytkymenjoki River [6].

Hydropower production

Although log floating and swamp drainage have had a disruptive effect on several waterfalls and rapids in Finland, their effect is not remarkable when compared to the largest threat waterfalls have ever met in Finland (and in the World): hydropower production.

Utilizing rivers for hydropower production has destroyed more waterfalls in Finland (since late 1800s) than any other single factor. Mostly this results from the dams and water reservoirs built along with the hydroelectric plants. Reservoirs are needed to control the water flow and provide a consistent supply of water for the plant.

The building of dams usually results in the drowning or drying of the original stream bed, as the water is diverted to the turbines of the power plant instead of original waterfall. Typically our biggest and steepest waterfalls have been the first victims of hydroelectric utilization, as they have a big power output and good energy efficiency, and the building of dams is easy because of the natural elevation change.

Kyroskoski
The dry stream bed of the former Kyröskoski waterfall in Hämeenkyrö. The fall was utilized for hydropower production in 1912.

Halkiankoski waterfall's hydroelecric plant
Mini hydro plant (0.3 MW) of the utilized Halkiankoski waterfall in Pornainen.

Energy companies often claim that hydroelectricity is a "clean" method to produce energy, as it's a renewable resource and doesn't involve fossil fuels. It should be noted, though, that hydroelectric power has many other disadvantages that can make it unfriendly and even disastrous energy production method for nature, especially for rivers.

In addition to the destruction of the waterfall (with its beauty) itself, the disadvantages include harms for the river ecosystems, like a blockage of migration organisms (like freshwater salmon) due to the interruption of the flow by the dam, and accumulating of wastes into the water reservoir. Because of those and other negative effects, we should consider the replacement of hydroelectric plants with alternative energy resources in the future. That's important especially because the average drop height of the rivers in Finland is small, in contrast, for example, to the mountainous Norway. Would it be possible for us to widen our vision of our waterfalls, and see them in a new light, not just as cold, utilized energy facilities?

Summary

It can always be said, that our welfare society would not exist today, if the large-scale utilizing of our waterfalls and rapids hadn't been done. Probably that's completely true, as hydroelectricity was practically the only electric energy resource in Finland yet in the midpoint of 1900s. In same way, log floating has previously been a necessary part of our forest industry, when other log transporting methods haven't been available. The growth of our industry and economy have made our life easier and raised Finland to the group of strong welfare nations in the world. Because of that we have to admit that without our waterfalls and rapids we would be living in a much poorer country than Finland is today.

Despite of all those realities, we live today in a very different kind of world than in the 1900s. Log floating has ended in Finland several decades ago (because of new forest machines), and the proportion of hydroelectricity is today only 10–20 % of our total energy output, depending on the water levels. Personally I see that we should now look forward into the future. It's more than likely that by the accelerating speed of technologization, we will value untouched nature and places where to relax even more in the future. Therefore we should seriously consider the possibility to release at least some of our dammed waterfalls on the long term scale – if we really appreciate our country. In same way, we should continue the work to restore our rivers that were cleaned for log floating, though a some amount of work is already done.

Maybe it's possible to replace even all hydroelectricity in the distant future, by new solutions of energy technology. Among concrete examples are so-called distributed energy resource systems that are based on small, flexible technologies like solar panels integrated into buildings and small-scale wind turbines on rooftops in cities. Through the centuries, new innovations and technologies have replaced old, harmful or obsolete ones in the world. Personally I think this is also true with hydroelectricity, as it has been with watermills, oil lamps, log floating and locomotives in 1900s.

With good will and the development of technology – along with caring for our nature – we can maybe someday see even our most magnificent waterfalls and rapids flowing free. At least we can hope so.


Further reading

Need more reading? Below are some third-party websites that are related to waterfalls, recommended for reading:


List of references

  1. Waterfall – Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Waterfall, retrieved 7.4.2016.

  2. World of waterfalls – How are waterfalls formed?, http://www.world-of-waterfalls.com/featured-articles-waterfalls-101-how-are-waterfalls-formed.html, retrieved 7.4.2016.

  3. Reinorinne.com – Kuusamon koskisota (in Finnish), http://www.reinorinne.com/koskisota, retrieved 8.4.2016.

  4. The Secret to a Happy, Healthy Life Already Exists in Nature, http://www.world-of-waterfalls.com/news-article-the-secret-to-a-happy-healthy-life-already-exists-in-nature.html, retrieved 8.4.2016.

  5. World of waterfalls – Why do we care about waterfalls?, http://www.world-of-waterfalls.com/featured-articles-waterfalls-101-why-do-we-care-about-waterfalls.html, retrieved 11.4.2016.

  6. Nytkymenjoen kunnostussuunnitelma (in Finnish), http://www.ymparisto.fi/download/noname/%7BA0B2E59E-EB65-4646-A76A-5F25949833B6%7D/99811, retrieved 11.4.2016.

  7. Vesivoima – Energiateollisuus, http://energia.fi/en/statistics-and-publications/electricity-statistics/production/electricity-supply-energy-sources, retrieved 11.4.2016.

  8. Lounema, Risto, 2. painos (2001). Suomen luonnon ihmeitä. Yhtyneet Kuvalehdet Oy. s. 106. ISBN 952-5257-27-4.

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