For other uses, see Whitewater (disambiguation).
Whitewater on the river Guil ( French Alps)
Whitewater on the small rapid of Kannonkoski, Central Finland
Vivid water of the Torne River between Sweden and Finland.

Whitewater, [1] usually spelled white water in both American and British English, [2] [3] is formed in a rapid, when a river's gradient increases enough to create so much turbulence that air is entrained into the water body, that is, it forms a bubbly or aerated and unstable current; the frothy water appears white. The term is also loosely used to refer to less turbulent, but still agitated, flows.[ citation needed]

The term "whitewater" also has a broader meaning, applying to any river or creek itself that has a significant number of rapids. The term is also used as an adjective describing boating on such rivers, such as whitewater canoeing or whitewater kayaking. [4]

Fast rivers

Four factors, separately or in combination, can create rapids: gradient, constriction, obstruction and flow rate. Gradient, constriction and obstruction are streambed topography factors and are relatively consistent. Flow rate is dependent upon both seasonal variation in precipitation and snowmelt and upon release rates of upstream dams.[ citation needed]

Streambed topography

Streambed topography is the primary factor in creating rapids, and is generally consistent over time. Increased flow, as during a flood or high rainfall season can make permanent changes to the streambed by displacing rocks and boulders, by deposition of alluvium or by creating new channels for flowing water.[ citation needed]


The gradient of a river is the rate at which it loses elevation along its course. This loss determines the river's slope, and to a large extent its rate of flow. Shallow gradients produce gentle, slow rivers while steep gradients are associated with raging torrents.[ citation needed]


Constrictions can form a rapid when a river's flow is forced into a narrower channel. This pressure causes the water to flow more rapidly (hence the name) and to react differently[ dubious ] to riverbed events (rocks, drops, etc.).[ citation needed]


A boulder or ledge in the middle of a river or near the side can obstruct the flow of the river, and can also create a "pillow"; when water flows backwards upstream of the obstruction, or a "pour over" (over the boulder); and "hydraulics" or "holes" where the river flows back on itself—perhaps back under the drop—often with fearful results for those caught in its grasp. (Holes, or hydraulics, are so-called because their foamy, aerated water provides less buoyancy and can feel like an actual hole in the river surface.) If the flow passes next to the obstruction, an eddy may form behind the obstruction; although eddies are typically sheltered areas where boaters can stop to rest, scout or leave the main current, they may be swirling and whirlpool-like. As with hydraulics (which pull downward rather than to the side and are essentially eddies turned at a 90-degree angle), the power of eddies increases with the flow rate.[ citation needed]

In large rivers with high flow rates next to an obstruction, "eddy walls" can occur. An eddy wall is formed when the height of the river is substantially higher than the level of the water in the eddy behind the obstruction. This can make it difficult for a boater, who has stopped in that particular eddy, to reenter the river due to a wall of water that can be several feet high at the point at which the eddy meets the river flow.

Stream flow rate

A marked increase or decrease in flow can create a rapid (where previously wasn't one), "wash out" a rapid (decreasing the hazard) or make safe passage through previously-navigable rapids more difficult or impossible. Flow rate is typically measured in cubic metres per second (m3/s), or in cubic feet per second (cfs), depending on the country.[ citation needed]