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The Grand Canyon, Arizona, at the confluence of the Colorado River and Little Colorado River Aerial view of canyons.jpg
The Grand Canyon, Arizona, at the confluence of the Colorado River and Little Colorado River

A canyon (Spanish: cañón; archaic British English spelling: cañon) [1] or gorge is a deep cleft between escarpments or cliffs resulting from weathering and the erosive activity of a river over geologic timescales. [2] Rivers have a natural tendency to cut through underlying surfaces, eventually wearing away rock layers as sediments are removed downstream. A river bed will gradually reach a baseline elevation, which is the same elevation as the body of water into which the river drains. The processes of weathering and erosion will form canyons when the river's headwaters and estuary are at significantly different elevations, [3] particularly through regions where softer rock layers are intermingled with harder layers more resistant to weathering.

British English is the standard dialect of English language as spoken and written in the United Kingdom. Variations exist in formal, written English in the United Kingdom. For example, the adjective wee is almost exclusively used in parts of Scotland and Ireland, and occasionally Yorkshire, whereas little is predominant elsewhere. Nevertheless, there is a meaningful degree of uniformity in written English within the United Kingdom, and this could be described by the term British English. The forms of spoken English, however, vary considerably more than in most other areas of the world where English is spoken, so a uniform concept of British English is more difficult to apply to the spoken language. According to Tom McArthur in the Oxford Guide to World English, British English shares "all the ambiguities and tensions in the word 'British' and as a result can be used and interpreted in two ways, more broadly or more narrowly, within a range of blurring and ambiguity".

Escarpment Steep slope or cliff separating two relatively level regions

An escarpment, or scarp, is a steep slope or long cliff that forms as an effect of faulting or erosion and separates two relatively level areas having differing elevations. Usually scarp and scarp face are used interchangeably with escarpment.

Cliff A vertical, or near vertical, rock face of substantial height

In geography and geology, a cliff is a vertical, or nearly vertical, rock exposure. Cliffs are formed as erosion landforms by the processes of weathering and erosion. Cliffs are common on coasts, in mountainous areas, escarpments and along rivers. Cliffs are usually formed by rock that is resistant to weathering and erosion. Sedimentary rocks most likely to form cliffs include sandstone, limestone, chalk, and dolomite. Igneous rocks such as granite and basalt also often form cliffs.


A canyon may also refer to a rift between two mountain peaks, such as those in ranges including the Rocky Mountains, the Alps, the Himalayas or the Andes. Usually a river or stream and erosion carve out such splits between mountains. Examples of mountain-type canyons are Provo Canyon in Utah or Yosemite Valley in California's Sierra Nevada. Canyons within mountains, or gorges that have an opening on only one side, are called box canyons. Slot canyons are very narrow canyons that often have smooth walls.

Rocky Mountains mountain range in North America

The Rocky Mountains, also known as the Rockies, are a major mountain range in western North America. The Rocky Mountains stretch more than 4,800 kilometers (3,000 mi) from the northernmost part of British Columbia, in western Canada, to New Mexico in the Southwestern United States. Located within the North American Cordillera, the Rockies are somewhat distinct from the Pacific Coast Ranges, Cascade Range, and the Sierra Nevada, which all lie farther to the west.

Alps Major mountain range system in Central Europe

The Alps are the highest and most extensive mountain range system that lies entirely in Europe, separating Southern from Central and Western Europe and stretching approximately 1,200 kilometres (750 mi) across eight Alpine countries : France, Switzerland, Italy, Monaco, Liechtenstein, Austria, Germany, and Slovenia. The mountains were formed over tens of millions of years as the African and Eurasian tectonic plates collided. Extreme shortening caused by the event resulted in marine sedimentary rocks rising by thrusting and folding into high mountain peaks such as Mont Blanc and the Matterhorn. Mont Blanc spans the French–Italian border, and at 4,810 m (15,781 ft) is the highest mountain in the Alps. The Alpine region area contains about a hundred peaks higher than 4,000 metres (13,000 ft).

Himalayas Mountain range in Asia

The Himalayas, or Himalaya, form a mountain range in Asia, separating the plains of the Indian subcontinent from the Tibetan Plateau. The range has many of the Earth's highest peaks, including the highest, Mount Everest. The Himalayas include over fifty mountains exceeding 7,200 m (23,600 ft) in elevation, including ten of the fourteen 8,000-metre peaks. By contrast, the highest peak outside Asia is 6,961 m (22,838 ft) tall.

Steep-sided valleys in the seabed of the continental slope are referred to as submarine canyons. Unlike canyons on land, submarine canyons are thought to be formed by turbidity currents and landslides.

Seabed The bottom of the ocean

The seabed is the bottom of the ocean.

Submarine canyon A steep-sided valley cut into the seabed of the continental slope

A submarine canyon is a steep-sided valley cut into the seabed of the continental slope, sometimes extending well onto the continental shelf, having nearly vertical walls, and occasionally having canyon wall heights of up to 5 km, from canyon floor to canyon rim, as with the Great Bahama Canyon. Just as above-sea-level canyons serve as channels for the flow of water across land, submarine canyons serve as channels for the flow of turbidity currents across the seafloor. Turbidity currents are flows of dense, sediment laden waters that are supplied by rivers, or generated on the seabed by storms, submarine landslides, earthquakes, and other soil disturbances. Turbidity currents travel down slope at great speed, eroding the continental slope and finally depositing sediment onto the abyssal plain, where the particles settle out.

Turbidity current An underwater current of usually rapidly moving, sediment-laden water moving down a slope

A turbidity current is most typically an underwater current of usually rapidly moving, sediment-laden water moving down a slope; although current research (2018) indicates that water-saturated sediment may be the primary actor in the process.. Turbidity currents can also occur in other fluids besides water.


Sumidero Canyon, Mexico Canyon sumidero entrada.jpg
Sumidero Canyon, Mexico

The word canyon is Spanish in origin (cañón, [4] pronounced  [kaˈɲon] ), with the same meaning. The word canyon is generally used in North America while the words gorge and ravine are used in Europe and Oceania, though gorge and ravine are also used in some parts of North America. In the United States, place names generally use canyon in the southwest and gorge in the northeast, with the rest of the country graduating between these two according to geography. In Canada, a gorge is usually narrow while a ravine is more open and often wooded. The military-derived word defile is occasionally used in the United Kingdom.

North America Continent entirely within the Northern Hemisphere and almost all within the Western Hemisphere

North America is a continent entirely within the Northern Hemisphere and almost all within the Western Hemisphere; it is also considered by some to be a northern subcontinent of the Americas. It is bordered to the north by the Arctic Ocean, to the east by the Atlantic Ocean, to the west and south by the Pacific Ocean, and to the southeast by South America and the Caribbean Sea.

Ravine Small valley, which is often the product of streamcutting erosion

A ravine is a landform that is narrower than a canyon and is often the product of streamcutting erosion. Ravines are typically classified as larger in scale than gullies, although smaller than valleys.

Europe Continent in the Northern Hemisphere and mostly in the Eastern Hemisphere

Europe is a continent located entirely in the Northern Hemisphere and mostly in the Eastern Hemisphere. It is bordered by the Arctic Ocean to the north, the Atlantic Ocean to the west and the Mediterranean Sea to the south. It comprises the westernmost part of Eurasia.


Most canyons were formed by a process of long-time erosion from a plateau or table-land level. The cliffs form because harder rock strata that are resistant to erosion and weathering remain exposed on the valley walls.

Erosion Processes which remove soil and rock from one place on the Earths crust, then transport it to another location where it is deposited

In earth science, erosion is the action of surface processes that removes soil, rock, or dissolved material from one location on the Earth's crust, and then transports it to another location. This natural process is caused by the dynamic activity of erosive agents, that is, water, ice (glaciers), snow, air (wind), plants, animals, and humans. In accordance with these agents, erosion is sometimes divided into water erosion, glacial erosion, snow erosion, wind (aeolic) erosion, zoogenic erosion, and anthropogenic erosion. The particulate breakdown of rock or soil into clastic sediment is referred to as physical or mechanical erosion; this contrasts with chemical erosion, where soil or rock material is removed from an area by its dissolving into a solvent, followed by the flow away of that solution. Eroded sediment or solutes may be transported just a few millimetres, or for thousands of kilometres.

Plateau An area of a highland, usually of relatively flat terrain

In geology and physical geography, a plateau, also called a high plain or a tableland, is an area of a highland, usually consisting of relatively flat terrain, that is raised significantly above the surrounding area, often with one or more sides with steep slopes. Plateaus can be formed by a number of processes, including upwelling of volcanic magma, extrusion of lava, and erosion by water and glaciers. Plateaus are classified according to their surrounding environment as intermontane, piedmont, or continental.

Canyons are much more common in arid than in wet areas because physical weathering has a more localized effect in arid zones. The wind and water from the river combine to erode and cut away less resistant materials such as shales. The freezing and expansion of water also serves to help form canyons. Water seeps into cracks between the rocks and freezes, pushing the rocks apart and eventually causing large chunks to break off the canyon walls, in a process known as frost wedging. [5] Canyon walls are often formed of resistant sandstones or granite.

Shale A fine-grained, clastic sedimentary rock

Shale is a fine-grained, clastic sedimentary rock composed of mud that is a mix of flakes of clay minerals and tiny fragments of other minerals, especially quartz and calcite. Shale is characterized by breaks along thin laminae or parallel layering or bedding less than one centimeter in thickness, called fissility. It is the most common sedimentary rock.

Sandstone A clastic sedimentary rock composed mostly of sand-sized particles

Sandstone is a clastic sedimentary rock composed mainly of sand-sized mineral particles or rock fragments.

Granite A common type of intrusive, felsic, igneous rock with granular structure

Granite is a common type of felsic intrusive igneous rock that is granular and phaneritic in texture. Granites can be predominantly white, pink, or gray in color, depending on their mineralogy. The word "granite" comes from the Latin granum, a grain, in reference to the coarse-grained structure of such a holocrystalline rock. Strictly speaking, granite is an igneous rock with between 20% and 60% quartz by volume, and at least 35% of the total feldspar consisting of alkali feldspar, although commonly the term "granite" is used to refer to a wider range of coarse-grained igneous rocks containing quartz and feldspar.

Snake River Canyon, Idaho Snake River Canyon Idaho 2007.jpg
Snake River Canyon, Idaho

Sometimes large rivers run through canyons as the result of gradual geological uplift. These are called entrenched rivers, because they are unable to easily alter their course. In the United States, the Colorado River in the Southwest and the Snake River in the Northwest are two examples of tectonic uplift.

Canyons often form in areas of limestone rock. As limestone is soluble to a certain extent, cave systems form in the rock. When these collapse, a canyon is left, as in the Mendip Hills in Somerset and Yorkshire Dales in Yorkshire, England.

Box canyon

A box canyon is a small canyon that is generally shorter and narrower than a river canyon, with steep walls on three sides, allowing access and egress only through the mouth of the canyon. Box canyons were frequently used in the western United States as convenient corrals, with their entrances fenced. [6]

Largest canyons

The definition of "largest canyon" is imprecise, because a canyon can be large by its depth, its length, or the total area of the canyon system. Also, the inaccessibility of the major canyons in the Himalaya contributes to their not being regarded as candidates for the biggest canyon. The definition of "deepest canyon" is similarly imprecise, especially if one includes mountain canyons as well as canyons cut through relatively flat plateaus (which have a somewhat well-defined rim elevation).

The Yarlung Tsangpo Grand Canyon (or Tsangpo Canyon), along the Yarlung Tsangpo River in Tibet, is regarded by some as the deepest canyon in the world at 5,500 m (18,000 ft). It is slightly longer than the Grand Canyon in the United States. [7] Others consider the Kali Gandaki Gorge in midwest Nepal to be the deepest canyon, with a 6400 m (21,000 ft) difference between the level of the river and the peaks surrounding it.

Vying for deepest canyon in the Americas are the Cotahuasi Canyon and Colca Canyon, in southern Peru. Both have been measured at over 3500 m (12,000 ft) deep.

The Grand Canyon of northern Arizona in the United States, with an average depth of 1,600 m (one mile) and a volume of 4.17 trillion cubic metres, [8] is one of the world's largest canyons. It was among the 28 finalists of the New7Wonders of Nature worldwide poll. (Some referred to it as one of the 7 natural wonders of the world. [9] )

The largest canyon in Africa is the Fish River Canyon in Namibia. [10]

In August 2013, the discovery of Greenland's Grand Canyon was reported, based on the analysis of data from Operation IceBridge. It is located under an ice sheet. At 750 kilometres (466 mi) long, it is believed to be the longest canyon in the world. [11]

The Capertee Valley in Australia is commonly reported as being the second largest (in terms of width) canyon in the world. [12] [13]

Capertee Valley panorama.jpg
Panoramic view of the Capertee Valley in Australia, the second largest (in terms of width) of any canyon in the world

Cultural significance

Some canyons have notable cultural significance. Evidence of early humanoids has been discovered in Africa's Olduvai Gorge. In the southwestern United States, canyons are important archeologically because of the many cliff-dwellings built in such areas, largely by the ancient Pueblo people who were their first inhabitants.

Notable examples

The following list contains only the most notable canyons of the world, arranged by continent and then country.


Fish River Canyon, Namibia Fish River Canyon from Main View Point.jpg
Fish River Canyon, Namibia


South Africa





Itaimbezinho Canyon, Brazil Itaimbezinho Canyon 2006.jpg
Itaimbezinho Canyon, Brazil





United States

Green River overlook, Canyonlands National Park, Utah CanyonlandsNP GreenRiverOverlook.jpg
Green River overlook, Canyonlands National Park, Utah


One of the Three Gorges of the Yangtze river, China Sunset on the Yangtze River.jpg
One of the Three Gorges of the Yangtze river, China






Cheddar Gorge, England Cheddar Gorge, Somerset, UK - Diliff.jpg
Cheddar Gorge, England


Le cirque de la Madeleine, Gorges de l'Ardeche, France Le cirque de la Madeleine 2011.jpg
Le cirque de la Madeleine, Gorges de l'Ardèche, France
Sainte-Enimie, Gorges du Tarn, France Sainte-Enimie-Gorges du Tarn-Frankreich.jpg
Sainte-Énimie, Gorges du Tarn, France


Aare Gorge, Switzerland Aareschlucht 166 7.jpg
Aare Gorge, Switzerland

Australian Countries


Joffre Gorge, Karijini National Park, Australia Joffre Gorge, Karijini National Park.jpg
Joffre Gorge, Karijini National Park, Australia


Canyons on other planetary bodies

Venus has many craters and canyons on its surface. The troughs on the planet are part of a system of canyons that is more than 6 400 km long.

See also

Related Research Articles

Valley Low area between hills, often with a river running through it.

A valley is a low area between hills or mountains typically with a river running through it. In geology, a valley or dale is a depression that is longer than it is wide. The terms U-shaped and V-shaped are descriptive terms of geography to characterize the form of valleys. Most valleys belong to one of these two main types or a mixture of them, at least with respect to the cross section of the slopes or hillsides.

Intermontane Plateaus physiographic division of the United States

The Intermontane Plateaus of the Western United States is one of eight U.S. Physiographic regions (divisions) of the physical geography of the contiguous United States. The region is composed of intermontane plateaus and mountain ranges. It is subdivided into physiographic provinces, which are each subdivided into physiographic sections.

Colorado Plateau plateau in the southwestern United States

The Colorado Plateau, also known as the Colorado Plateau Province, is a physiographic and desert region of the Intermontane Plateaus, roughly centered on the Four Corners region of the southwestern United States. This province covers an area of 336, 700 km2 (130,000 mi2) within western Colorado, northwestern New Mexico, southern and eastern Utah, and northern Arizona. About 90% of the area is drained by the Colorado River and its main tributaries: the Green, San Juan, and Little Colorado. Most of the remainder of the plateau is drained by the Rio Grande and its tributaries.

Department of Arequipa Region in 8 provinces and 109 districts, Peru

Arequipa is a department in southwestern Peru. It is bordered by the departments of Ica, Ayacucho, Apurímac and Cusco in the north, the Department of Puno in the east, the Department of Moquegua in the south, and the Pacific Ocean in the west. Its capital, also called Arequipa, is Peru's second-largest city.

Yarlung Tsangpo Grand Canyon canyon in Tibet, China

The Yarlung Tsangpo Grand Canyon or Yarlung Zangbo Grand Canyon or simply the Tsangpo Canyon, Brahmaputra Canyon or Tsangpo Gorge, along the Yarlung Tsangpo River in Tibet Autonomous Region, China, is the deepest canyon in the world, and at 504.6 kilometres (313.5 mi) is slightly longer than the Grand Canyon in the United States, making it one of the world's largest. The Yarlung Tsangpo originates near Mount Kailash and runs east for about 1,700 kilometres (1,100 mi), draining a northern section of the Himalayas before it enters the gorge just downstream of Pei, Tibet near the settlement of Zhibe. The canyon has a length of about 240 kilometres (150 mi) as the gorge bends around Mount Namcha Barwa and cuts its way through the eastern Himalayan range. Its waters drop from about 2,900 metres (9,500 ft) near Pei to about 1,500 metres (4,900 ft) at the end of the Upper Gorge where the Po Tsangpo River enters. The river continues through the Lower Gorge to the Indian border at an elevation of 660 metres (2,170 ft). The river then enters Arunachal Pradesh and eventually becomes the Brahmaputra.

Colca Canyon valley

Colca Canyon is a canyon of the Colca River in southern Peru, located about 160 kilometres (99 mi) northwest of Arequipa. It is Peru's third most-visited tourist destination with about 120,000 visitors annually. With a depth of 3,270 metres (10,730 ft), it is one of the deepest in the world. The Colca Valley is a colorful Andean valley with pre-Inca roots, and towns founded in Spanish colonial times, still inhabited by people of the Collagua and the Cabana cultures. The local people maintain their ancestral traditions and continue to cultivate the pre-Inca stepped terraces, called andenes.

Yarlung Tsangpo longest river in Tibet

The Yarlung Tsangpo, also called Yarlung Zangbo or Yalu Zangbu is the longest river of Tibet Autonomous Region, China.

The Canyon Lands Section of the Colorado Plateau is a physiographic section of the larger Colorado Plateaus province, which in turn is part of the larger Intermontane Plateaus physiographic division in the Western United States

Geography of Arizona

Arizona is a landlocked state situated in the southwestern region of the United States of America. It has a vast and diverse geography famous for its deep canyons, high- and low-elevation deserts, numerous natural rock formations, and volcanic mountain ranges. Arizona shares land borders with Utah to the north, the Mexican state of Sonora to the south, New Mexico to the east, and Nevada to the northwest, as well as water borders with California and the Mexican state of Baja California to the southwest along the Colorado River. Arizona is also one of the Four Corners states and is diagonally adjacent to Colorado.

Course of the Colorado River

The Colorado River is a major river of the western United States and northwest Mexico in North America. Its headwaters are in the Rocky Mountains where La Poudre Pass Lake is its source. Located in north central Colorado it flows southwest through the Colorado Plateau country of western Colorado, southeastern Utah and northwestern Arizona where it flows through the Grand Canyon. It turns south near Las Vegas, Nevada, forming the Arizona–Nevada border in Lake Mead and the Arizona–California border a few miles below Davis Dam between Laughlin, Nevada and Needles, California California before entering Mexico in the Colorado Desert. Most of its waters are diverted into the Imperial Valley of Southern California. In Mexico its course forms the boundary between Sonora and Baja California before entering the Gulf of California. This article describes most of the major features along the river.

Tonto Group

The Cambrian Tonto Group is the three-member sequence of geologic formations that represent the basal section of Paleozoic rocks in the Grand Canyon. The group is about 1,250 feet (381 m) thick. The base unit, the Cambrian Tapeats Sandstone was deposited upon the erosion surface of the Vishnu Basement Rocks, which is found in Granite Gorge. The erosion resistant Tapeats Sandstone forms the platform, called Tonto Platform, that the two less erosion resistant upper layers, the Bright Angel Shale and Muav Limestone, rest on.

Muav Limestone

The Cambrian Muav Limestone is the upper geologic unit of the 3-member Tonto Group. It is about 650 feet (198 m) thick at its maximum. It is a resistant cliff-forming unit. The Muav consists of dark to light-gray, brown, and orange red limestone with dolomite and calcareous mudstone. The Muav is overlain in some areas by the Devonian Temple Butte Limestone, but the major unit above are the vertical cliffs of Mississippian Redwall Limestone. The Muav is located in the lower elevations of the Grand Canyon, Arizona.

Toroweap Formation

The Middle Permian Toroweap Formation is a thin, darker geologic unit, between the brighter colored units of the Kaibab Limestone above, and Coconino Sandstone below. It is a prominent unit in Grand Canyon, Arizona, USA, found through sections of the South Rim, Grand Canyon, and the North Rim, of the Kaibab Plateau; also the Kaibab's southeast extension to Cape Royal, the Walhalla Plateau. The Colorado River of the Grand Canyon makes its excursion from due-south to due-west around the Walhalla Plateau, as it enters the east end of the Grand Canyon's interior, Granite Gorge. The formation is also found in southeast Utah.

Toroweap Fault

The Toroweap Fault of northwest Arizona and southwest Utah is part of a fault system of the west Grand Canyon region, Arizona, USA; also the west perimeter regions of the Coconino and Colorado Plateaus. The Hurricane Fault originates at the Toroweap Fault, in the region of the Colorado River, and strikes as the westerly expression of the Toroweap Fault. The Toroweap strikes northerly from the Colorado at the east of Toroweap Valley, and enters south Utah; from the Colorado River, the Hurricane Fault strikes north-northwest along the west flank of the small, regional Uinkaret Mountains, the west border of Toroweap Valley. The Hurricane Fault, and the Hurricane Cliffs strike into southwest Utah as part of the west, and southwest perimeter of the Colorado Plateau. The Hurricane Cliffs are made of Kaibab Limestone, an erosion resistant, cliff-forming rock unit.

Isis Temple mountain in United States of America

Isis Temple, in the Grand Canyon, Arizona, USA is a prominence below the North Rim, and adjacent Granite Gorge. The prominence lies north of the north bank of the west-flowing Colorado River, and is just north of Middle Granite Gorge. The Trinity Creek and canyon flow due-south at its west border; its north, and northeast border/flank is formed by Phantom Creek and canyon, a west tributary of Bright Angel Creek; the creeks intersect about 3 mi southeast, and 1 mi north of Granite Gorge.

Shinarump Conglomerate

The early Late Triassic conglomerate called the Shinarump Conglomerate, formally the Shinarump Member of the Chinle Formation, is a highly resistant coarse-grained sandstone and pebble conglomerate, sometimes forming a caprock because of its hardness, cementation, and erosion resistance. The Shinarump is found throughout the Colorado Plateau with significant exposures as the canyon rimrock in the vicinity of Canyon De Chelly National Monument, at the north-northeast of the Defiance Plateau/Defiance Uplift. At Canyon De Chelly the Shinarump Conglomerate was laid down upon De Chelly Sandstone-(280 Ma, an erosion unconformity of 50 my), in a region at the west foothill region of the mostly north-south trending Chuska Mountains of northeast Arizona – northwest New Mexico.

The Bailey–Morshead exploration of the Tsangpo Gorge was an unauthorised expedition by Frederick Bailey and Henry Morshead in 1913 which for the first time established the definite route by which the Tsangpo River reaches the sea from north of Himalaya, through the Tsangpo Gorge.

Parlung Tsangpo river in Nyingchi, Tibet

Parlung Tsangpo, is a river in Nyingchi, Tibet, China. It is the largest tributary on the left side of Yarlung Tsangpo. Its source is the Arza Gongla Glacier, at an elevation of 4900m. It first flows north into Ngagung Tso, then turn northwest to Rakwa Tso. It joins Yarlung Tsangpo near Bomê. The total length is 266 km, and the drop of elevation is 3360m. The drainage basin covers an area of 28,600 km2. The lower part of Parlung flows through the Parlung Tsangpo Valley, which is among the deepest in the world.


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  6. "box canyon". Encarta World English Dictionary. 2009. Archived from the original on 2009-10-31. Retrieved 2009-08-04.
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  8. "Park Statistics". National Park Service. USA.
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  11. "Grand Canyon of Greenland Discovered under Ice". 2017-05-10.
  12. Fitzsimons, David (14 December 2015). "Capertee Valley: Australia's own Grand Canyon". Daily Telegraph. Retrieved March 28, 2016.
  13. Kruszelnicki, Dr. Karl S. (22 May 2012). "Grand Canyon is not so grand › Dr Karl's Great Moments In Science". ABC Science. Retrieved March 28, 2016.
  14. Valerio Poggiali, Marco Mastrogiuseppe, Alexander G. Hayes, Roberto Seu, Samuel P. D. Birch, Ralph Lorenz, Cyril Grima, Jason D. Hofgartner, "Liquid-filled Canyons on Titan", 9 August 2016,

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