What is an Escarpment?

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

An escarpment is a geologic formation caused by faulting or erosion where a cliff or very steep slope is formed over time. Escarpments can be found on every continent and they are also present on a number of planets and moons, as astronomers have learned with the assistance of close flybys and robotic exploration. Their size and composition can be quite variable, and sometimes the escarpment marks a border between different climate zones and other features of interest, making it an important landmark.

Scientist with beakers
Scientist with beakers

In the case of an escarpment caused by faulting, a series of earthquakes over time pushes one section of ground up or allows another to fall away. Different geological layers can be seen in the face of the escarpment, illustrating different periods in the area's geologic history. Often, the lowland area becomes covered in deposits of rich, silty soils and may support a variety of plants and animals, while the exposed highland may become more barren and rocky as a result of erosion.

Erosion of escarpments is a gradual process, and it is usually seen near geologic boundaries, where rocks of different types start to wear unevenly. Soft sandstone may be eaten away, for example, leaving harder granite behind. The wear of the weaker stone can be the result of scouring winds, water, ice, and other weather events. Often, the soft features of the raised section of earth are worn away and can leave behind bizarre and visually interesting formations.

Escarpments can present significant barriers to travel, as they may be very high, and it will be necessary to either bridge lowlands, create a road up the face of the rock, or travel around to more level ground. They can also provide shelter from wind and rain, making the area at the foot of an escarpment a popular area for human settlements. The tendency to accumulate topsoil in the lowlands can be useful for agriculture as well.

For people like geologists and paleontologists, an escarpment can represent a prime opportunity. People can see geologic history neatly mapped out in the layers of the rock face and may take samples to learn more about the geologic history of the area. Fossils can be identified to see what kind of organisms lived there and to collect information about the climate during previous geologic eras. This information can be applied to the understanding of other rock formations in the area as well.

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a wiseGEEK researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

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Discussion Comments


@cardsfan27 - I am not entirely sure concerning the answer to your question, but I would guess that they can be considered the same thing.

I have been to Niagara Fall and it can also be referred to as the Niagara Escarpment. If you define an escarpment by what it says in the article then Niagara Falls would fit into this category, even though it is basically a massive hundreds of feet high cliff, with a giant waterfall coming down.

I want to think the escarpments are a basic type of geological formation that has several different things that it can fall under. It seems to me like it is the major category and can encompass several different types of geological formations.


One question I have about escarpments is when are they considered a cliff? Are all cliffs escarpments? If not then how high does an escarpment have to be to be considered a cliff.

I have seen some things that are called an escarpment, but are incredibly high and nearly impossible to climb. In my mind I consider these to be cliffs and see escarpments as being smaller formations like a hill compared to a mountain.

I would really like to know if there is a difference between the two or if they are basically the exact same thing or maybe even a sub category of cliffs.


I also live in the Midwest and it is rare to come across anything that is not flat, but those areas that do have some hills usually have big escarpments.

There is this one giant escarpment around where I live that could almost be considered a cliff. It is one hundred feet high and is a pain to walk.

The escarpment trail for this particular one is so high that you have to zig zag all the way to the top in order to climb the ascent. Otherwise you would almost have to rope climb to the top.


I have always thought that escarpments were a really neat looking type of geological formation. I live in the farm lands of the Midwest and I never seen very many interesting geological formations due to the flat land that surrounds me. However, escarpments, due to soil erosion, occur quite often, especially for steep hills and they usually leave a very cool looking formation that one would not usually see in my area.

Where I live we refer to these escarpments as "cliffs" due to the fact that they seem big to us and out of the ordinary.

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