What are the Great Lakes?

April 22, 2024

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Lake Superior

North America is home to hundreds of lakes, but perhaps none are as famous as the Great Lakes. These lakes are a dominant feature in the United States and Canada’s landscape. They provide essential freshwater to the surrounding communities and are home to thousands of plant and animal species.

The Great Lakes account for 84% of North America’s surface freshwater and 21% of the world’s surface freshwater supply. They have been central to North American culture for thousands of years. To this day, they’re an important part of the economy, culture, and environment.

Continue reading to learn about the size of these Great Lakes, their ecosystems, and much more.

What are the Great Lakes?

There are five Great Lakes: Superior, Michigan, Huron, Erie, and Ontario. These lakes and their connecting channels form the world’s largest fresh surface water system. Over 30 million people live in the basin: roughly 10% of the US population and over 30% of Canada’s population.

Let’s take a look at each lake in more detail, including its area, location, and depth.

Lake Superior

The sun rising on the horizon of Lake Superior
Sunrise over Lake Superior

As the name suggests, Lake Superior is the largest and deepest of the Great Lakes. It stretches approximately 560 kilometers (350 miles) from west to east and 257 kilometers (160 miles) from north to south. Lake Superior has an average depth of around 500 feet (152 meters) and a maximum depth of 1,332 feet (406 meters).

The Ojibwe indigenous people call the lake ‘gichi-gami’, which translates to ‘great sea’. When the first French explorers came upon the lake in the 17th century via the Ottawa River and Lake Huron, they named the lake ‘e lac supérieur’ (upper lake) as it was above Lake Huron. The British renamed the lake to ‘Superior’ after taking control of the region following their victory over the French in the 1760s.

Lake Superior has the world’s biggest surface area of any freshwater lake. The lake can hold 2,900 cubic miles (12,070 km³) of water. This is enough water to fill the four other Great Lakes and three additional Erie Lakes.

Michigan, Minnesota, Wisconsin, and Ontario lie within Lake Superior’s drainage basin, which covers 82,100 km² (31,700 sq miles). Despite this large area, the basin is sparsely populated and has little agriculture due to the poor soil and cool climate. Forests mostly cover the area.

The largest island on Lake Superior is Isle Royale in Michigan. There are several lakes on the island itself, some of which feature their own islands. Other major islands on the lake include  Madeline Island in Wisconsin and Michipicoten Island in Ontario.

As well as being the largest and deepest lake, Superior is also the coldest of the Great Lakes. The lake’s average temperature is 39°F throughout the year.

Lake Superior is home to a diverse range of wildlife. Moose, bear, and deer frequent the banks and surrounding area, while the most common types of fish found in the watery depths include lake trout, coho salmon, and king salmon.

Lake Michigan

Shore of Lake Michigan in West Olive, Michigan
Sandy shore of Lake Michigan under a blue, cloudy sky

Based on water volume, Lake Michigan is the second largest Great Lake. It’s also the only Great Lake entirely contained within the United States and borders Indiana, Illinois, Michigan, and Wisconsin. It measures approximately 118 miles wide 190 kilometers (118 miles) wide and 494 kilometers (307 miles) long and has a shoreline of around 2,575 kilometers (1,600 miles). Around 12 million people live along the lake’s shores.

Lake Michigan’s name comes from the Ojibwe word ‘mishigami’, which translates to ‘large water’. The state, located in the Great Lakes region of the upper Midwestern US, was named after the lake.

The lake has an average depth of 85 meters (279 feet) but reaches 281 meters (921 feet) at its deepest point. The world’s largest freshwater sand dunes also line the shores of Lake Michigan. The Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore spans an area of 71,199 acres (288.13 km2); the tallest dune stands approximately 137 meters (450 feet) above Lake Michigan.

Technically, Lake Michigan is hydrologically inseparable from Lake Huron. The two lakes are separated by the Straits of Mackinac, which are short waterways between the Upper and Lower Peninsulas of Michigan. The Mackinac Bridge is a suspension bridge that spans the straits.

Although a variety of native fish live in Lake Michigan (such as lake trout, lake sturgeon, and lake whitefish), there is also a large collection of fish that come from the sea. This includes Sea lamprey, Pacific salmon, and Zebra and Quagga mussels.

Lake Huron

Boat with American flag, sails on Lake Huron
Boat with American flag, sails on Lake Huron

Although technically part of Lake Michigan, Lake Huron is officially classed as a separate lake. With a surface area of 23,000 square miles, Lake Michigan is the world’s third-largest Great Lake and the fifth-largest freshwater lake. However, it has the longest shoreline of the Great Lakes, measuring approximately 6,159 kilometers (3,827 miles).

Lake Huron measures 332 kilometers (206 miles) across and 183 miles (295 kilometers (183 miles) from north to south. The lake’s drainage basin covers parts of Michigan in the US and Ontario in Canada.

Saginaw Bay, a bay in Lake Huron, is extensively farmed and features a productive fishery. Mackinac Island, a popular tourist destination, is one of Lake Huron’s 30,000 islands. It is car-free, and most visitors and residents get around via carriages and bicycles.

In the mid-17th century, French explorers were the first Europeans to visit the region and named the lake La Mer Douce, which translates to ‘the fresh-water sea’. The lake was later called Lac des Hurons (Lake of the Hurons) after the local Huron group of Indigenous people, now more commonly called the Wyandot people.

Approximately 68% of Lake Huron’s watershed is covered in forests, including Carolinian forests, which feature many of Canada’s rarest and most endangered species. Some of the most common species of fish found in the lake include walleye, salmon, and northern pike.

The lake has some of the world’s longest beaches, such as Sauble Beach (7 mi/ 11km) and Wasaga Beach (8.7 mi/ 14 km). Most of Lake Huron’s beaches have rare dune systems that are home to equally rare animal and plant species. This includes the likes of the Bluehearts Flower and the Five-Lined Skink.

Lake Erie 

oat on Lake Erie next to the docks. Buildings line the shore and a bridge is visible in the distance. The sun is setting, and the golden light is reflected on the water
A boat sails out onto Lake Erie

Although the smallest of the Great Lakes in volume, Lake Erie is the most densely populated of the five lakes. It has a surface area of nearly 10,000 square miles and stretches 388 kilometers (241 miles) across and 92 kilometers (57 miles) from north to south. The lake has a mean elevation of 174 meters (571 feet) above sea level.

Its drainage basin covers parts of Indiana, Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania, New York, and Ontario in the United States and Canada. The basin is extensively farmed due to the fertile soil, which is one of the main causes of the dense population.

During the 1960s, there were widespread concerns about the water quality in Lake Erie. To this day, excessive algae growth threatens the lake’s ecosystem and poses safety concerns to the water that 12 million people across the US and Canada consume.

The lake was named after a group of Indigenous people who lived on the lake’s southern shore. ‘Erie’ is a shortened version of the Iroquoian (Native American language) word ‘Erielhonan’, which translates to ‘long tail’, which could be in reference to one of several mythical creatures or animals such as cougars or raccoons.

It’s believed the first European explorer to see the lake was a Frenchman called Louis Jolliet, who visited the region in 1669. However, some reports suggest another French explorer, Étienne Brûlé, may have crossed Lake Erie in 1615. Lake Erie was the last of the Great Lakes to be explored by Europeans.

Many fish species live in Lake Erie, including bigmouth buffalo, yellow perch, and northern pike (the lake’s top predator).

Lake Ontario

Aerial view of trees and Lake Ontario
Aerial view of Lake Ontario

Lake Ontario is similar in size to Lake Erie, but its greater depth means it contains far more water. The lake measures 311 kilometers (193 miles) by 85 kilometers (53 miles) and has an average depth of approximately 86 meters (283 feet). At its greatest depth, Lake Ontario measures 244 meters (802 feet).

This lake is the smallest of the Great Lakes in terms of surface area, but it still ranks as the world’s 13th largest lake based on surface area. All the water in the Great Lakes basin passes through Lake Ontario. The lake also acts as a crucial route for fish migration due to its close proximity to the Atlantic Ocean.

Lake Ontario provides drinking water to nine million people. Although it is the smallest of the Great Lakes, more Canadians live in its drainage basin than any other basin in Canada. The province of Ontario was even named after the lake.

The lake borders Ontario in Canada to the north, west, and southwest and the American state of New York to the south and east. The Canadian-United States border runs through the center of the lake.

Lake Ontario is named after the Huron word Ontarí’io, which translates to ‘great lake’. It was briefly called ‘Cataraqui’ during the French colonial period, which comes from the Mohawk word ‘Katarokwi’.

Lake Ontario has over 120 species of fish, including around 12 invasive species. The most common species are the king salmon, coho salmon, and rainbow trout. The lake is also a temporary home to many migratory birds, including swans, geese, and grebes.

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