Scientists observed waterfalls forming simply through the movement of water downhill in a new laboratory study – a result that could complicate our understanding of Earth’s history.

Waterfalls may be beautiful and awe inspiring, but they’re also windows into the past, signaling changes in sea level, tectonic activity, or climate change.

But if waterfalls can form without an external force, as they did in this new experiment, scientists might have to rethink inferences they’ve made about Earth using waterfalls.

“There’s this idea that we can look at the topography of a planetary body and use it as a record of its history,” study author Joel Scheingross, assistant professor in the Department of Geological Sciences and Engineering at the University of Nevada, Reno, told Gizmodo.

A combination of various past influences can form a waterfall, including faults that cross rivers moving over time, landslides or glaciers altering the shape of the land, and climate change influencing the rate that rivers cut into the Earth.

The researchers modelled a riverbed in the lab using a 24-foot-long, 1-foot-wide piece of polyurethane foam meant to simulate bedrock.

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