The River that Flows Uphill (2023)

People tend to see a river as an immutable part of the landscape. We notice the changes that happen on a monthly and seasonal basis: the effects of spring snowmelt and summer drought and the rise and fall of intermittent floods. But we generally accept the notion that where a river flows at this moment is where it flowed in the past.

If we look a little deeper, however, we see evidence of rivers responding to changes in land and water uses, even changes in climate. For instance, compare a photograph of a certain stretch of a river taken in the late-1800s with one taken today—they often look very different. There are parts of Wisconsin that feature half-buried fence posts and other kinds of evidence of sediment flushed from fields during the early decades of agriculture and deposited onto flood plains. Fueled by global climate change, the heavy rains of 2008 led to flooding that drained Lake Delton and altered the landscape of 31 of Wisconsin’s 72 counties, causing over $763 million in damages.

When we look back in time and think about a river the way a geologist does, we begin to see that rivers are actually quite mobile across the landscape. Geologists have long understood that, given enough time, rivers can actually migrate. North America is dotted with places where rivers have changed course, abandoned established valleys to form new ones, or even reversed the direction of flow. As long ago as the late 19th century, geologists documented that the Ohio River, which today flows southwest out the Appalachians to its confluence with the Mississippi River at the southern tip of Illinois, was formed perhaps a million years ago by redirecting and integrating several rivers that formerly flowed northward toward the Great Lakes lowland.


To study such events and processes of the ancient earth, geologists must turn the scientific method on its head. Based on a clear progression that emphasizes the reproducibility of experiments, the scientific method is quickly challenged when exploring events that happened in the distant past and at a monumental scale. A professor I knew as a graduate student was fond of saying that geology is not about conducting experiments, but, rather, collecting data to help understand what the experiment had been. This is the framework in which I learned to do science, from the time I was an undergraduate geology student until I became a research scientist. However, the past few years of studying the history of the Wisconsin River has been an exception to the way I was taught to adapt the scientific method to the realities of our peculiar science.

• • • • •

Even though geologists understand a great deal about the most recent glacial advance that covered about half of Wisconsin some 24,000 years go, we have much to learn about the series of massive glaciations that happened here and across North America over the last 2.5 million years. The Wisconsin River has been deeply affected by all of this glacial activity. The river originates in Lac Vieux Desert in northernmost Wisconsin on the border with Michigan and flows across glacial deposits from the last Ice Age. One of the youngest landscapes in Wisconsin, the Northern Highlands formed as massive blocks of glacial ice, left behind and buried in sediment, finally melted—hundreds or perhaps thousands of years after the end of the Ice Age. The result is a chaotic landscape, pocked with kettle lakes and detritus from the last ice sheet, and the Wisconsin River wanders across it.

North of the town of Merrill, the Wisconsin River flows along channels carved into igneous and metamorphic rocks that formed over a billion years ago. Near Stevens Point, it enters the Central Sand Plain, which was the floor of a massive, glacier-fed Lake Wisconsin that pooled at the edge of the ice sheet some 20,000 years ago. At Wisconsin Dells, the river flows through cataracts carved into the sandstone over the course of about a week by the catastrophic draining of glacial Lake Wisconsin some 17,400 years ago. The Wisconsin River then wraps around the eastern end of the ancient Baraboo Hills, and finally runs westward through the Driftless Area to its confluence with the Mississippi River. It is this final reach across the Driftless Area, a stretch known as the Lower Wisconsin River, that provides clues for understanding the radical changes that have occurred to the Wisconsin River and other rivers in the Midwest over the past several million years.

The River that Flows Uphill (1)

The rivers that flow across the central portions of North America are defined by a series of surfaces that slope so gently as to be imperceptible to the human eye, on the order of ten or so centimeters per kilometer (a little over six inches per mile). The Lower Wisconsin River is no different. It features a deeply scoured bedrock valley that was filled by sand and gravel during the last glaciation. Beneath this sand and gravel, the buried bedrock floor of the valley slopes to the west: an absolute indication that it was carved by westward-flowing water. The floodplain and the river itself also slope gently westward. Along the steep walls of the ancient river valley, which is in some areas miles away from the river we know today, stand several sand-and-gravel terraces. These terraces represent remnant floodplains from when huge volumes of sediment-laden water emerging from the ice sheet also flowed west.

(Video) Water flows uphill in Kenyan county

Yet the Lower Wisconsin River contains an anomaly: preserved in three discrete pieces along the valley is a higher and therefore older terrace than the sand-and-gravel ones deposited by flooding during the last Ice Age. Carved into the bedrock by flowing water and covered by a mélange of unconsolidated sediments—river sand, lake clay and silt, landslide and slopewash sediment, windblown sand—this terrace represents the ancient floor of the valley from a time long before it had been scoured as deeply as it is today.

As long as geologists recognized this terrace as a fragment of ancient valley floor, they inferred that the buried bedrock that underlies it dips to the west, just like all the other surfaces in the valley. However, because of the sediment deposited on top of the terrace and its imperceptible slope, there was never a way to verify this inference. Lacking verification, the most plausible interpretation was that it dips west and simply represents an older iteration of the Lower Wisconsin River than we see today.

The River that Flows Uphill (2)

Yet the landscape contains clues that point to an alternate theory. Many of the tributaries of the Lower Wisconsin River angle to the east where they join this westward flowing river; these have long been known in the geologic literature as barbed tributaries, and they indicate a river that has experienced a significant upheaval. Too, the valley of the Lower Wisconsin River narrows as you follow it downstream, which is the opposite of what we see with almost every other river. Where it joins the Mississippi River at Prairie du Chien, the Wisconsin River curves to the north to join the south-flowing Mississippi; south of the confluence of the two rivers, the valley of the Mississippi River also narrows. These geologic clues suggest that the modern river system does not reflect the system that once flowed across this landscape.

The westward-flowing Lower Wisconsin River may not be exactly what it appears at first glance, and the bedrock terrace contains the key to discerning what river systems looked like here millions of years ago. While tens to hundreds of feet of glacial till obscure most of the river’s older landscape, the Driftless Area has remained untouched (yet very much surrounded) by glaciers over the past 2.5 million years. The bedrock terrace, preserved within this time capsule of sorts, allows me to ask a fairly direct question of the earth: Was the original valley carved by a river flowing toward the west or toward the east? It’s a question as intriguing as it is unique, since in my experience it is rare that an important scientific question offers only two possible outcomes.

(Video) Weird Experiment Makes Water Flow Uphill

• • • • •

As a geologist, I specialize in studying the processes and histories of rivers; more specifically, I study rivers that flow near the former margins of ancient glaciers. The idea that glacial activity may have caused the ancient Wisconsin River to flow to the east grew from many discussions I had with my former doctoral advisor, James C. Knox, before he passed away in 2012. Jim was the Evjue-Bascom professor emeritus of Geography at the University of Wisconsin–Madison and a pioneer in stream and soil research. Over the years, he and I tossed around hypotheses about the Wisconsin River that couldn’t be tested because of insufficient topographic data. In the early spring of 2013, however, improved topographic models, based on a new generation of laser-derived data called LiDAR, became available. Generated by measuring the two-way travel time of laser light shot from an airplane toward the ground, LiDAR data are accurate enough to identify ground surface elevations to within a few centimeters. Finally, we had a way to evaluate the elevation and slope of the ancient bedrock terraces.

Scientific research is often collaborative, requiring multiple voices to provide a breadth of insight, experience, ideas, and skillsets. Posing and answering the question of whether the Lower Wisconsin River valley was carved by an eastward- or westward-flowing river was no exception. Several of my colleagues at the Wisconsin Geological and Natural History Survey—John Attig, Elmo Rawling, and Ben Bates—assisted with the LiDAR data interpretation and subsequent fieldwork. We began by taking a series of hydraulic core samples along the terrace, driving hollow steel rods down through the surface sediment to the bedrock terrace and describing the cores we collected to identify the depth at which we struck bedrock. We combined the LiDAR data, coring information, and core descriptions to precisely identify the elevation of the river-scoured bedrock terrace to within a few centimeters at a handful of points. Then we collected this information again and again at dozens of points along the valley to build enough data to identify the trend.

The River that Flows Uphill (3)

Those several weeks of data collection stand out in my memory. The anticipation of answering the east-versus-west question lent a tension to the fieldwork that I had never experienced in all my years of research. As we collected cores kilometers apart and eventually tens of kilometers apart, I plotted each day’s new data to look for emerging trends. Within the first few days, I began to develop a broad sense of how deeply we should core at a given location depending on whether the bedrock terrace dipped to the east or to the west. While I wouldn’t normally anticipate a particular outcome from collecting research data, I was hoping we would identify that the terrace dipped to the east. The implications were tantalizing: A different configuration for the Lower Wisconsin River necessitates a different one for the upper Mississippi River, and for tributaries of the upper Mississippi River—the Black, Chippewa, Root, St. Croix, and Minnesota. Moreover, rivers flowing to the east across Wisconsin and Minnesota probably wouldn’t have reached the Gulf of Mexico. If this were true, it would prompt a reconsideration of the way we understand rivers across the North American continent.

While I am by nature an early riser, I recall numerous sleepless nights in the summer of 2013, thinking about the emerging work and waiting for the alarm to sound for another day of coring. I would hope and, sometimes, even despair over the depth to which the core was penetrating, and obsess over the location and placement of new cores. My anxiety turned to excitement when I began to be able to predict the depth at which the core would strike bedrock if the terrace were indeed dipping to the east. When we moved to a site at the west end of the terrace near Muscoda, I estimated we’d need to strike bedrock no deeper than seven feet—which we did. The data all pointed to a valley that, while occupied today by a westward-flowing river, was actually carved by an ancient, eastward-flowing river. The months that followed were filled with marshaling additional evidence to support this new interpretation of the river. We pored over the data to look for holes or flaws in the interpretations and presented our results to colleagues in the field for their critical assessment of the work.

(Video) This place in Mexico where the water runs uphill

• • • • •

Given our findings, my colleagues and I have developed a picture of a vast ancient river system that drained almost all of what is now Wisconsin and Minnesota. We have named it the ancestral Wyalusing River. The course of the Wyalusing River was certainly controlled by the local bedrock. Erosion-resistant layers of dolomite bedrock form topographic highs in the state. The east-west running Military Ridge in the southwest corner of Wisconsin, which is capped by one of these layers of dolomite, prevented these ancient rivers from flowing to the south. Instead, they flowed to the east. Fed by glaciers of an earlier era, these swift rivers cut deeply into the weakly cemented and easily erodible sandstone that underlies the dolomite and moved into the Great Lakes lowland and eventually to the Gulf of St. Lawrence and the North Atlantic Ocean.

The River that Flows Uphill (4)

Perhaps a million or more years ago, encroaching glaciers blocked the Wyalusing River and dammed a vast lake in the river valley. The rising waters spilled over the dolomite ridge to carve a pathway to the south, flowing into a new valley between Prairie du Chien and Dubuque, Iowa, and continuing to the Gulf of Mexico. The new, shorter pathway to the oceans captured the rivers across Wisconsin and Minnesota and formed the upper Mississippi River system we know today. Glaciers caused the reorganization of these river systems, but the lack of glaciation in the Driftless Area left scattered fragments of ancient river valleys exposed at the surface rather than buried by glacial sediment. This was the window into the geologic past that allowed us to understand the legacy of the ancient rivers of Wisconsin and Minnesota.

I see it every time I look at the Wisconsin River now. When I hike up to Ferry Bluff or drive across the river at Spring Green or Muscoda, I look at the river around me and see the water flowing to the west on its way to the Gulf of Mexico. But I also see the ancient Wyalusing River, its water flowing to the east and bound for the North Atlantic Ocean. Two rivers occupying the same space at different times.


What is the only river that flows uphill? ›

Antarctica river

There's a river that flows uphill beneath one of Antarctica's ice sheets, according to Robin Bell, a professor of geophysics at Columbia University's Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory in New York.

What causes a river to flow uphill? ›

How does it move uphill? So What's Happening? The starting point of all rivers is higher than their end point. However, under the right conditions, small amounts of water can be drawn upwards, against the tug of gravity, through a phenomenon known as "capillary action".

What does the water flowing uphill mean? ›

When you see water flowing uphill, it means that someone is repaying a kindness. ( African proverb) #mlearnquotes. 3:29 PM · Dec 12, 2020.

Where does a river flow uphill? ›

It always does — right? But under Antarctica's ice, water can sometimes run uphill. Under the right conditions, a whole river can spurt from one lake uphill to another lake. That's because the ice weighs so much that it presses down on the water with thousands of pounds of pressure per square inch.

Is there a river that flows both directions? ›

The Hudson Estuary: A River That Flows Two Ways.

Is there a river that goes upstream? ›

Do rivers flow upstream or downstream? Usually, rivers flow downstream, but there are some that don't. This can happen when rivers flow south to north due to the source of the river being higher up in the South. One famous river that has this type of flow is the Nile River in Africa.

Does the Mississippi River flow up or down? ›

The Mississippi River water source is fed by Lake Itasca in Northern Minnesota and flows all the way down into the Gulf of Mexico.

Does the Wind river flow uphill? ›

It flows gradually up-section, from older rocks to younger, and since the rocks are tilted northward and the river also flows northward, it seems like it's flowing uphill. Or maybe it's just me.

What is the hill called where water goes uphill? ›

Located in Machakos District, a town in Eastern Kenya, 64 kilometers southeast of Nairobi, Kituluni hill inspires myths because it defeats Isaac Newton's famous Law of Gravity. Kituluni has the dubious distinction of being one of the places in the world where water flows uphill unaided.

What does it mean when things are going uphill? ›

: upward on a hill or incline. : against difficulties.

What is water that flows downhill called? ›

A river is a ribbon-like body of water that flows downhill from the force of gravity. A river can be wide and deep, or shallow enough for a person to wade across. A flowing body of water that is smaller than a river is called a stream, creek, or brook.

How can water travel upwards? ›

Adhesion of water to the walls of a vessel will cause an upward force on the liquid at the edges and result in a meniscus which turns upward. The surface tension acts to hold the surface intact. Capillary action occurs when the adhesion to the walls is stronger than the cohesive forces between the liquid molecules.

How do rivers flow in terms of elevation? ›

A river forms from water moving from a higher elevation to a lower elevation, all due to gravity. When rain falls on the land, it either seeps into the ground or becomes runoff, which flows downhill into rivers and lakes, on its journey towards the seas.

Is there a river that flows into itself? ›

The Pecos is an important source of water in the northern reaches of the Chihuahuan Desert—and that's how it attained its most unusual geographic distinction. Near Carlsbad, Mexico, locals brag, the Pecos becomes the world's only river that crosses itself.

What is a river that flows into another called? ›

A tributary is a freshwater stream that feeds into a larger stream or river. The larger, or parent, river is called the mainstem. The point where a tributary meets the mainstem is called the confluence. Tributaries, also called affluents, do not flow directly into the ocean.

What is the only river in the world that flows north? ›

I do understand that in Cairo the word on the street is that, except for the Willamette, the Nile is the only river in the world that flows north. Odd, since in Sudan for about 200 miles, the Nile River actually flows south.

What river in the US flows up? ›

This interesting illustration from the June 1921 issue of New Science and Invention demonstrates that the Mississippi River (or any river flowing toward the equator) actually flows uphill. The Earth is not a perfect sphere. There is an equatorial ring about 13.5 miles deep.

What two rivers in the world flow backwards? ›

RiverOriginal outletContinent
Amazon RiverPacific OceanSouth America
Wisconsin RiverGreat Lakes BasinNorth America

What are the only rivers that flow north in United States? ›

Two rivers that flow north in the United States are the Teton and the Snake rivers in Idaho. When we think of rivers in the northern hemisphere, we assume they all flow south. It makes sense, to us south is down. The lowest point in Idaho is the Snake River at 710 ft.

What is the deepest river in the world? ›

The Congo is the deepest river in the world. Its headwaters are in the north-east of Zambia, between Lake Tanganyika and Lake Nyasa (Malawi), 1760 metres above sea level; it flows into the Atlantic Ocean.

What is the fastest river in the world? ›

Interesting Facts about the Fastest Rivers In the World

The world's fastest river is the Amazon, which flows at an average speed of around 7 miles per hour. However, the river's speed can increase to around 10 miles per hour during high rainfall.

What is the fastest flowing river in the United States? ›

Summary Of 10 Of The Fastest Rivers In The United States
RankRiverMiles of Flow
4The Columbia River1243 miles
3The St. Lawrence River600 miles
2The Ohio River981 miles
1The Mississippi River2350 miles
6 more rows
3 days ago

Do all rivers go down hill? ›

Most rivers in the world flow downhill, often South, due to gravity. The Nile River is an exception to this rule, flowing from South to North. Other rivers have the ability to flow different directions due to where sloping occurs away from their headwaters.

What is the only river that changes direction? ›

The Mekong River swells so much that the Tonle Sap River is actually forced to flow backward, northward away from the sea. It's the only river in the world that goes both ways.

Can a river change the direction it flows? ›

Rivers changing direction is relatively common, according to the scientists, but is usually caused by tectonic forces, landslides or erosion.

Can a water pump push water uphill? ›

Water pumps are powerful devices capable of working hard to pump water, even when going uphill and against gravity.

Can water go up without pressure? ›

You can't get water to go up without a pump”.

The same way you can pull up water in a straw, you create vacuum with your mouth pulling the water up and then use your finger to seal the top of the straw. The water stays nicely suspended between a low pressure at one end and a higher pressure at the other.

How much pressure does it take to push water uphill? ›

To push water uphill it will require pressure and if water goes downhill then you will gain pressure. An easy calculation to know is that for every 10 feet of rise you lose -4.33 psi. For every 10 feet of fall in elevation, you will gain +4.33 psi.

What is the figurative meaning of uphill? ›

The expression from which Up-hill likely was inspired refers to situations and scenarios that require harder work than usual to overcome — walking down a pathway versus walking up a hill.

What does uphill mean slang? ›

laboriously fatiguing or difficult: an uphill struggle to become wealthy.

What is the idiom for uphill struggle? ›

Uphill battle is an idiom that means a difficult undertaking, a struggle, a tremendous task, a challenge with many obstacles. One is often said to face an uphill battle or to be fighting an uphill battle as a way of saying that one is tackling difficulties.

What is the upward movement of water called? ›

The upward movement of water in a plant towards the stem and leaves is called ascent of sap.

What is it called when water moves vertically? ›

Ocean water moves in two directions: horizontally and vertically. Horizontal movements are referred to as currents, while vertical changes are called upwellings or downwellings.

Does river water flow uphill or downhill? ›

Rivers typically do flow downhill, but they also sort of flow uphill when the water is pumped due to power and money requiring more water east of the Rockies or in populated areas in California. Technically in coastal plain rivers, when the tide is incoming, the flows would be uphill or negative.

How did the Romans move water up hill? ›

Engineers have built aqueducts, or canals, to move water, sometimes many hundreds of miles. Actually, aqueducts aren't a high-tech modern invention—the ancient Romans had aqueducts to bring water from the mountains above Rome, Italy to the city.

How can you describe the flow of water? ›

Running water flows naturally in a direction according to gravity along the slope and makes its own way. This is called a flow of water. When many such flows of water come together, a river is formed.

Is the steeper the river is the slower the water moves? ›

The slope of the land causes water to move faster. If a stream or a river is flowing down a mountain, it will move more quickly. If it is flowing across a flat area, it will move slowly.

What happens to a river as it flows over a steep drop? ›

A stream's velocity increases as it nears a waterfall, increasing the amount of erosion taking place. The movement of water at the top of a waterfall can erode rocks to be very flat and smooth. Rushing water and sediment topple over the waterfall, eroding the plunge pool at the base.

Can rivers go up in elevation? ›

Actually, water doesn't flow either downhill or uphill but follows the surface of the earth at any given location.

How does water flow from high to low? ›

Water flows downhill because gravity is a form of potential energy – and the water, or anything that falls or rolls downward – flows in response to differences in potential energy (from high to low).

Where is the world's only backwards flowing river? ›

Did you know? Illinois is home to the only river in the world that flows backwards. The Chicago River, known mainly for the different colors it is dyed to celebrate different events and holidays, has been a hallmark of Chicago since the earliest days of the city.

What is the only river that flows north to south? ›

Even the Oregon portion of the Snake flows north. I do understand that in Cairo the word on the street is that, except for the Willamette, the Nile is the only river in the world that flows north. Odd, since in Sudan for about 200 miles, the Nile River actually flows south.

What is the only river that flows in reverse? ›

The theory of how the Amazon River was born begins millions of years ago when a collection of rivers in what we now know as the Amazon Basin reversed their course and became a larger river. This change was brought about by erosion and the growth of the Andes Mountains in the western part of South America.

Are there only two rivers that flow north? ›

According to the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, four of the world's 10 longest rivers flow generally northward: the Nile, the Mackenzie-Peace (in Canada) the Ob and the Lena (in Siberia). In fact, NASA says that there are rivers flowing north on every continent.

Did the Mississippi river ever run backwards? ›

Between December 16, 1811, and late April 1812, a catastrophic series of earthquakes shook the Mississippi Valley. Towns were destroyed, an 18-mile-long lake was created and even the Mississippi River temporarily ran backwards.

Which river in the USA does not flow to the ocean anymore? ›

The Colorado River no longer reaches the Gulf, and instead peters out of existence miles short of the sea. Two factors have conspired to turn this once mighty river into a trickle: climate change and overuse by the very states that rely on its waters. A section of the Colorado River.

What is the slowest moving river in the world? ›

James River (Dakotas)

What is the only US state with two rivers of the same name? ›

Florida is the only state that has two rivers that have the same name. There is a Withlacoochee River in Madison County and a Withlacoochee River located in central Florida.

Do all rivers lead to the ocean? ›

All rivers flow to the ocean

Except for the driest deserts, every place on Earth has a connection to the ocean through a river. Even the highest mountain in the world, Mt. Everest, is connected to the sea by flowing water. Because of their connectivity, rivers gave rise to human civilization.

What two rivers run backwards? ›

RiverOriginal outletContinent
Amazon RiverPacific OceanSouth America
Wisconsin RiverGreat Lakes BasinNorth America

What is the only major river to cross the equator twice? ›

Measured along with the Lualaba, the main tributary, the Congo River has a total length of 4,370 km (2,715 mi). It is the only major river to cross the Equator twice.

Is there a river that splits? ›

The Barak River splits into two major rivers at the India-Bangladesh border. The Karnali River bifurcates in Nepal and the two parts rejoin after flowing into India for 80 kilometers. In Louisiana, the Mississippi River bifurcates into the Atchafalaya River.

How many rivers run north in USA? ›

In the US, at least 48 rivers in 16 states flow north, including nine in Alaska and eight in Washington. According to some sources, South America has the highest number of northward-flowing rivers. The course of the Nile River as it flows from south to north through Egypt to drain into the Mediterranean Sea.

Does Yellowstone river flow north? ›

It leaves the lake at Fishing Bridge and flows north over LeHardys Rapids and through Hayden Valley. After this peaceful stretch, it crashes over the Upper and Lower falls of the Grand Canyon. It then flows generally northwest, meeting its largest tributary, the Lamar River, at Tower Junction.

What river in Florida runs north? ›

The St. Johns River is the longest river in Florida, flowing 310 miles north from its headwaters at Blue Cypress Lake in Indian River County to its mouth where it empties in to the Atlantic Ocean east of Jacksonville. Contrary to what some might think, the fact that our river flows north is not very unusual.


1. River that Runs Uphill - Smith Mountain
(American Electric Power)
2. 15 Places on Earth Where Gravity Doesn't Seem to Work
(The Finest)
3. A River That Flows Uphill
4. The Road Where Cars Roll Uphill | World's Strangest
(Science Channel)
5. Till The Rivers All Run Dry by Don Williams (with lyrics)
(Melodies and Memories)
6. The River that Flows Uphill (Revised Edition) [PDF & PUB]


Top Articles
Latest Posts
Article information

Author: Msgr. Refugio Daniel

Last Updated: 07/10/2023

Views: 5493

Rating: 4.3 / 5 (54 voted)

Reviews: 85% of readers found this page helpful

Author information

Name: Msgr. Refugio Daniel

Birthday: 1999-09-15

Address: 8416 Beatty Center, Derekfort, VA 72092-0500

Phone: +6838967160603

Job: Mining Executive

Hobby: Woodworking, Knitting, Fishing, Coffee roasting, Kayaking, Horseback riding, Kite flying

Introduction: My name is Msgr. Refugio Daniel, I am a fine, precious, encouraging, calm, glamorous, vivacious, friendly person who loves writing and wants to share my knowledge and understanding with you.