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Waterfalls fall from their heights

No argument about the Rhine falls: they carry the most water

(Keystone)

The waterfalls of Switzerland have attracted visitors and inspired poets over the years – and still today are a marketing boon.

The Lauterbrunnen valley in the Bernese Oberland promotes itself as the Valley of 72 Waterfalls – though whether this is a record, its promotional literature doesn't say.

"The soul of man is like water. It comes from heaven and rises again to heaven," wrote Germany's greatest poet, Goethe, after watching the play of wind and water at the valley's best known landmark, the Staubbach Falls.

His poem, "Song of the Spirits over the Waters" was later set to music by Schubert.

Byron described the same falls as "like the tail of the pale horse ridden by Death in the Apocalypse."

The falls get their name from the spray – like dust, or "Staub" – whirled by the wind. Like Goethe and Byron, countless tourists have watched the stream turn into "waves of cloud" as it hits the rock.

And countless Swiss schoolchildren have learned that this is the highest waterfall in Switzerland. However, it seems the geography books will have to be rewritten.

Accessing the inaccessible

Geographer and waterfall specialist Florian Spichtig spent several years with his colleague Christian Schwick researching Swiss waterfalls. In 2007 they published Die Wasserfälle der Schweiz, featuring 129 of the most striking examples. Their work has knocked the Staubbach Falls from the top spot, not once but twice.

Not every one can be the biggest or the highest – and in any case, as Spichtig pointed out to swissinfo.ch, it's all a matter of how you define them.

It is hardly surprising that it took so long for the Staubbach's rivals to be recognised. Although it was known that the Seerenbach Falls on Lake Walen, in eastern Switzerland might be higher, measuring waterfalls can be a challenging business.

These Seerenbach Falls are a cascade consisting of three steps. Although the total height – 585 metres – was known, the exact height of its inaccessible middle step was a mystery until the intrepid geographers tackled it in 2006.

"We had to abseil down in order to be able to measure this step at all. When that was done, we were able to establish that at 305 metres it is eight metres higher than the Staubbach Falls," Spichtig explained.

Revising the revision

But since then they have had to revise their estimation of yet another waterfall and the Lauterbrunnen valley has got its record back, this time with the Mürrenbach Fall.

"We discovered that we had made a mistake in our definition," Spichtig admitted.

In their original research they described these falls as a cascade. A cascade consists of several steps, with a few horizontal metres of water between each one. But closer inspection revealed they had been wrong.

"We were allowed to make a special trip on the Mürrenbahn cableway, and about half way they up stopped it so that we could study it once more in great detail, and then we realised that there was in fact no horizontal stretch as we had previously thought;" said Spichtig.

To be completely sure of its exact height they measured it three times from different standpoints: it turned out to be 417 metres.

Nevertheless, the Staubbach Fall has not entirely lost its claim to fame.

"The Staubbach Fall is the highest free falling waterfall. Not of all it, but some of the water really does fall without touching the rock before reaching the bottom," said Spichtig.

With so many different kinds of waterfall, comparisons are invidious, but at least taking the measurements – as long as you can get to the right spot – is now much easier than it once was.

"We have a laser apparatus which can measure up to 1,200 m distance. It also has an angle measuring device which shows the incline. And so we can stand at a single point under the waterfall and measure up and down and that gives us the entire height to an accuracy of 0.5 metres," Spichtig explained.

Rhine Falls

Height is not the only way to measure waterfalls. When it comes to the amount of water flowing over them, nowhere else in Switzerland can compete with the Rhine Falls near Schaffhausen, not far from the border with Germany.

They are a mere 23 metres high, but 150 metres wide. They are at their most impressive in summer, when about 600,000 litres of water go over per second. The greatest ever flow was measured in 1965: 1,250,000 litres per second.

This is tiny in comparison with the world's giants - the Niagara carries six times as much, and the world's largest, the Inga Falls on the Congo river (actually a series of rapids, so not everyone thinks they count) 115 times – but Europe is not a continent of large falls.

The Rhine Falls are the biggest not only in Switzerland, but also in the continent as a whole, with rivals only in Iceland.

They too have attracted tourists and inspired artists for centuries. In the 19th century, the British painter J.M.W. Turner made several studies and paintings of them. Indeed, their economic value as a tourist attraction has probably saved them from plans put forward over the years to exploit them for power generation.

The Rhine Falls hold another record in Switzerland: that of the most visited waterfall in the country.

But the Staubbach can claim a more intangible record: it certainly inspired the greatest poet.

Julia Slater, swissinfo.ch

Waterfalls in Switzerland

Waterfalls normally occur when the course of a river runs over layers of rock composed of different degrees of hardness. Softer layers are eroded away, while hard layers are more resistant.

Waterfalls are therefore to be found chiefly in areas where the rock is highly stratified.

Nearly two thirds of Swiss waterfalls are in the area of the so-called Helvetic nappes, stretching from the south-west of canton Valais across the northern Alps to the Rhine valley on the border with Austria.

Another fifth are in the Penninic nappes in the south east of canton Valais and northern Ticino.

The size of a waterfall depends not only on the geology, but also on the amount of precipitation and the drainage basin.

The Rhine Falls owe their size to their large drainage basin.

There are very few large waterfalls in central Alps or in the plateau area of Switzerland.

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Waterfall types

Waterfalls are difficult to compare with each other because they take many different shapes.

One basic division between waterfalls is between those that fall freely and cascade-like ones, which fall in steps directly succeeding each other.

Both types can be simple with a single stream of water; complex, with several parallel streams; branched, where several streams separate out and flow into each other again; and a curtain, with a broad stream

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