85 Fascinating Facts About the Great Lakes

Interesting Great Lakes facts

Find the answers to the questions below and a whole lot more with these fascinating facts about the Great Lakes!

Are the Great Lakes the largest lakes in the world? How were they formed? How many have died in them? Just how much water do they contain?

Great Lakes Location Facts

1. The Great Lakes are five enormous lakes in the mid-eastern region of North America. Canada and the United States share them.

2. They are an interconnected chain of lakes connected by rivers and other waterways, eventually flowing east to the Atlantic Ocean via the mighty Saint Lawrence River.

3. The five Great Lakes are, from west to east: Lake Superior, Lake Michigan, Lake Huron, Lake Erie, and Lake Ontario. Read these fun facts about Lake Superior, the largest one.

4. Lake Michigan is the only one located entirely in the US. It is shared by the states of Wisconsin, Illinois, Indiana, and Michigan.

5. The other four are shared by Ontario province in Canada and Minnesota/Wisconsin/Michigan (Lake Superior), Michigan (Lake Huron), Michigan/Ohio/Pennsylvania/New York (Laker Erie), and New York (Lake Ontario).

6. The northernmost reach of the Great Lakes sits at a similar latitude to Paris, France, while the southernmost reach is on par with Barcelona, Spain.

Aerial view of skyscrapers in Chicago on the shore of Lake Michigan at night
Chicago on the shore of Lake Michigan

7. The Great Lakes are located almost entirely south of the 49th Parallel, which forms the border between Western Canada and the Western United States.

8. Niagara Falls, the largest waterfall in North America by flow rate, is on the Niagara River, which connects Lake Erie and Lake Ontario. It sits between the twin cities of Niagara Falls, Ontario, and Niagara Falls, New York.

Great Lakes Size Facts

9. The Great Lakes are the largest group of lakes in the world.

10. Each lake sits in its own basin, but combined, these basins are called the Great Lakes Basin. Water covers one-third of the total basin area, which is unusually high for a basin.

The shore of Lake Superior viewed from the Ontario side of the lake
Lake Superior

11. The Great Lakes Basin area is 476,366 km2 (296,000 mi2), larger than the state of California.  

12. In total, the Great Lakes contain 22,671 km3 (5,439 mi3) of water, or 21% of the world’s freshwater, and 84% of North America’s surface water.

13. However, Lake Baikal in Russia (23,615 km3/5666 mi3, or 22-23% of the world’s freshwater) contains more water than all 5 Great Lakes combined, because of its immense depth.

14. This means that only six lakes (Great Lakes plus Lake Baikal) contain 43-44% of the world’s freshwater supply!

15. If the world’s largest river, the Amazon River, emptied into the Great Lakes, it would take 1308 days (3.5 years) to fill them.

View of Niagara Falls from the Canada side.
Niagara Falls between Lake Erie and Lake Ontario

16. If all the water from the Great Lakes were spread across North America, it would cover the continent with 1.5 m (5 ft) of water. Spread across the US, it would cover the Lower 48 States with 2.9 m (9.5 ft) of water.

17. Lake Michigan is the largest lake entirely in the US, and the world’s largest freshwater lake that is in only one country. The largest lake entirely in Canada is not one of the Great Lakes, but Great Bear Lake in Northwest Territories.

18. Due to their immense size, the Great Lakes have sea-like conditions, such as large waves, powerful currents, and distant horizons, thus some people consider them inland seas.

19. They also have a major impact on the climate in surrounding areas, cooling them in summer, warming them in fall, and causing increased snowfall in winter.

20. Lake Superior is the world’s largest freshwater lake by area and 3rd largest by volume. It contains 12,100 km3 (2900 mi3) of water, more than the other four lakes combined.

Aerial view of a shoreline on Lake Superior with large waves heading towards the shore
Waves on Lake Superior

21. Only the Caspian Sea, which some consider a lake and others consider an inland sea due to its salinity, is larger than Lake Superior. Found in Russia, Iran, Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, and Turkmenistan, it contains more than three times as much water as the Great Lakes.

22. Lakes Huron, Michigan, Erie, and Ontario are the world’s 3rd, 4th, 10th, and 12th largest freshwater lakes, respectively.

23. Some argue that Lakes Michigan and Huron are technically one lake. Connected by the Straits of Mackinac, they match the definition of a single lake because they sit at exactly the same level.

24. If one accepts this, then Lake Michigan-Huron is the largest freshwater lake in the world by surface area, but still doesn’t contain as much water as Lake Superior.

25. The Great Lakes have a combined surface area of 244,106 km2 (294,250 mi2), larger than the entire country of Romania.

A beach with three trees on it, and in the background a bridge going across a large body of water
Bridge across the Straits of Mackinac

26. England’s Lake District (including all its land and water surface area) could fit onto the Great Lakes (water only) over 100 times. England itself could fit onto the lakes almost twice.

27. The lakes stretch 1283 km (797 mi) from west to east, nearly the same length as Western Europe, and 830 km (516 mi) from north to south, similar to the width of Germany.

28. From deepest to least deep, the lakes have a maximum depth of 406.3 m/1333 ft (Lake Superior), 281 m/922 ft (Lake Michigan), 244 m/801 ft (Lake Erie), and 229 m/751 ft (Lake Huron).

29. The tallest building in Canada, Toronto’s Sky Tower, would fit below the surface of Lake Superior, with nearly 100 meters to spare. The Empire State Building would fit with 25 meters to spare.

30. The total coastline of the Great Lakes measures around 16,900 km (10,000 miles), around three times the total width of Canada, or halfway around the world along the equator.

The Sky Tower in Toronto, with some yellow umbrellas and people walking below it.
The observation deck of Toronto’s CN Tower would be submerged in Lake Superior, but the spire would rise around 150 m out of the water.

31. 8500 km (5300 mi) of Great Lakes coastline is in the US, while 8400 km (5200 mi) is in Canada.

32. The Great Lakes contain some 35,000 islands. The largest is Manitoulin Island in Lake Huron, Ontario. At 66 km2 (1,068 mi2), it is the largest lake island in the world. The island itself has over 100 lakes, some of which contains islands of their own.

33. The Gulf of Saint Lawrence, where the Great Lakes empty into Atlantic Ocean via the Saint Lawrence River, is the world’s largest estuary. It covers 236,000 km2 (91,000 mi2), larger than the states of Virginia and Tennessee combined. The gulf surrounds an entire Canadian province, PEI.

Amusing Facts About the Great Lakes

34. The first person to swim across all five Great Lakes was Vicki Keith in 1988. In 2009, another woman, Paula Stephanson, completed the feat.

35. Legend has it that Babe Ruth’s first professional home run hit, at Hanlan’s Point Stadium in Toronto, landed in Lake Ontario and has never been found.

Old drawing of a stadium in Toronto with Lake Ontario in the background
The former Hanlan’s Point Stadium on Lake Ontario (image from Wikipedia Commons)

36. Lake Michigan was once known for its pirates, and their booty was timber in the early days of logging around the lakes.

37. The largest wave ever recorded on the Great Lakes was 8.8 m (29 feet) on Lake Superior.

38. A phenomenon called “ice volcanoes” is unique to the Great Lakes. These occur when waves under the ice force water or slush out through cone-shaped mounds of ice.

39. Lake Michigan’s shore has sand dunes in several locations. The largest are up to 137 m (450 ft), the largest freshwater sand dunes in the world.

40. The sand dunes conceal the ghost town of Singapore, Michigan, which was once a booming logging town. It was destroyed by fire and by erosion resulting from the deforestation all around it.

Some sands dunes with greenery on top of them beside the blue waters of Lake Michigan
Sand dunes on Lake Michigan

41. By traveling via the St. Lawrence, Great Lakes, Illinois Waterway (Illinois Diversion), and Mississippi River, barges can travel from the Gulf of St. Lawrence all the way to the Gulf of Mexico.

42. There are over 30,000 shipwrecks in the Great Lakes, which have claimed the lives of over 30,000 sailors. Most wrecks lie undiscovered.

43. A particularly dangerous stretch of Lake Superior between Munising and Whitefish Point, Michigan is called “Graveyard of the Great Lakes”.

44. In 1860, the Lady Elgin ship sank after colliding into a schooner, taking down over 300 passengers with it.

45. Lake Michigan has its own version of the Bermuda Triangle, called the Michigan Triangle, where ships and planes have gone missing and there’s a Stonehenge-like pile of rocks underwater.

A shipwreck stuck in shallow water just off the coast of Lake Ontario, with trees in the foreground
A shipwreck on Lake Ontario

46. The largest fish in the Great Lakes are sturgeon, which can weigh up to 136 kg (300 pounds) and measure up to 3 m (10 ft).

47. Lake Erie is thought to have a Loch Ness Monster-like creature, called Bessie. It has inspired the name of the Cleveland Monsters (formerly Lake Erie Monsters), Cleveland’s American Hockey League team.

48. Goderich Mine, which lies below Lake Huron, is the world’s largest underground salt mine.

49. Lake Huron also has massive sinkholes which contain microbial conditions similar to the world’s oceans 3 billion years ago.

50. The Great Lakes Circle Tour is a series of driving routes around the Great Lakes (excluding Lake Ontario) that totals over 10,000 km (6500 mi).   

Two inuksuit (piles of rocks resembling a human figure) in the shallow water near the coast of Lake Huron
Inuksuit on Lake Huron

51. Four of the five lakes have indigenous names: Huron and Erie are named after tribes, while Michigan means “large lake” in Objibwe and Ontario means “lake of shining water” in Wyandot.

52. Lake Ontario got its name before the province did.

53. Ontario Lacus, a liquid hydrocarbon lake on Titan, Saturn’s largest moon, is named after Lake Ontario.

The Great Lakes Region & Economy Facts

54. Collectively, the lakes and their surrounding lands in Canada and the US form the Great Lakes Basin, which is home to 37 million people. This includes a third of Canada’s entire population and 8 of its 20 largest cities.

55. Major Canadian cities in the Great Lakes Region include Toronto, Hamilton, London, St. Catharines, Niagara, Oshawa, Windsor, and Barrie (all in Ontario).

Downtown Toronto beside Lake Ontario and a harbor with boats in it
Toronto, the largest city on the Great Lakes

56. Major US cities in the Great Lakes Region are Chicago, Cleveland, Detroit, Milwaukee, Duluth, Gary, Toledo, Buffalo, Rochester, and Syracuse.

57. All of the region’s cities combined, including those along the St. Lawrence River, are also collectively called the Great Lakes Megalopolis. The “megaregion” has a total population of 60-85 million, depending on the area considered. Toronto is its largest city, while Greater Chicago is its largest metropolitan area.

58. There are 5 Canadian national parks (Bruce Peninsula, Pukaskwa, Georgian Bay Islands, Point Pelee, and Thousand Islands) and 2 American national parks (Isle Royale, Indiana Dunes) in the Great Lakes region.

59. The Great Lakes Region is an economic powerhouse, with an annual GDP of USD 6 trillion, making it one of the world’s largest economic megaregions.

60. Major technologies developed in the Great Lakes region include the steel plow, reaper, steam powered grain elevator, the assembly line, the world’s first skyscraper (in Chicago), and nuclear power. Today, the region is a world leader in automobile and rubber production.

Shoreline of Lake Ontario in low light, with several factories and steel mills lining the shore
Steel Mills near Hamilton on Lake Ontario

61. The Great Lakes produce good conditions for growing fruit around them, including grapes for wineries. These areas are called “fruit belts”.

62. Because the St. Mary’s River (Lake Superior to Huron) and Niagara River (Lake Erie to Ontario), as well as parts of the St. Lawrence, were not navigable, canals and systems of boat locks have been constructed between them.

63. Today it takes ships an average 11 hours to cross the 43 km (27 mi) Welland Canal, including 8 locks, built to avoid Niagara Falls. It can handle ships up to 225.6 m (740 ft) in length.

64. The drop in elevation between Lake Erie and Lake Ontario (where Niagara Falls is located) is much larger than between the other lakes. Lakes Superior, Michigan/Huron, and Erie are at 183/174/173 m (601/572/569 ft), while Lake Ontario is at 74 m (273 ft). This might explain the slow trip across Welland Canal.

65. For comparison’s sake, the Panama Canal is 65 km (40 mi) and also takes an average 11 hours to cross. Its maximum ship length is 366 m (1201 ft).

Aerial view of a port on Lake Erie, which connects to Wellland Canal going off into the distance
The Welland Canal entrance on Lake Erie

66. Over 200 million tons of cargo are shipped through the Great Lakes every year, including 50% of Canada-US trade.

67. The Port of Duluth in Minnesota is the world’s largest inland/freshwater port.

68. The Great Lakes contain enough water to produce 6000 terawatts (6,000,000,000,000,000 watts) of electricity through hydropower (if they were totally drained). That’s enough to power all of the US and Canada for a year.

69. Currently, 3 major companies produce 240 terawatts per year from various dams on rivers between the Great Lakes.

70. The Great Lakes provide drinking water for more than 40 million people.

Great Lakes History Facts

71. Tectonic plates split 1.3-1.2 billion years ago to form a rift where Lake Superior now sits. Another rift formed 570 million years ago where the other lakes now sit.

72. During the last ice age, the basins of the Great Lakes were carved out by immense glaciers.

A huge glacier viewed from above.
The Great Lakes Basin was carved out by immense glaciers.

73. Before the Great Lakes were formed, Lake Agassiz covered parts of Saskatchewan, Manitoba, Ontario, Minnesota, and North Dakota. It was larger than all the Great Lakes combined. Its enormous flood 12,875 years ago may account for Biblical flood stories.

74. As the glaciers melted, the Great Lakes began to fill with water around 14,000 years ago. They reached their present water levels 10,000 (Lake Erie), 7000 (Lake Ontario), and 3000 (Huron, Michigan, Superior) years ago.

75. In the early 1600s, Étienne Brûlé was the first European to see the Great Lakes.

76. In 1818, the US and British armies made a treaty to disarm ships on the Great Lakes.

77. The Erie Canal was opened in 1825, providing lake access from across Upstate New York, and the Welland Canal was opened in 1829, giving ships access to the upper lakes.

View looking down on a small boat harbor on Lake Superior, with a long thin strip of land out on the lake
A dock where ferries depart for Isle Royale on Lake Superior

78. In 1842, the Canada-US border was drawn across the Great Lakes. A less than perfect understanding of the geography at the time resulted in some quirks that remain today, like Minnesota’s Northwest Angle (see “Angle Inlet” on the map at the top), which is cut off from the rest of the country, and Isle Royale, which is much closer to Canada but belongs to the US.

79. The Illinois Diversion was completed in 1848, allowing ships to travel from the Great Lakes all the way to the Gulf of Mexico.

80. Overfishing in the Great Lakes in the late 1800s and early 1900s resulted in the decimation of many species, including the last Atlantic salmon in 1898.

81. In the late 1800s, the Great Lakes region population reached 10 million.

82. In 1909, the US and Britain/Canada signed the Boundary Waters Treaty for sharing and protecting water in the Great Lakes.

A huge cargo ship on Lake Superior, viewed from above
Ship on Lake Superior

83. During WWI, demand for iron/steel, chemicals, and other resources led to rapid industrialization and increased pollution in the Great Lakes area. This problem was recognized and gradually improved from the 1960s on.  

84. In 2013, one of the largest wooden steamships from the Civil War, the Keystone State, was found in Lake Huron, after disappearing 151 years earlier.

85. Water levels in the Great Lakes reached record lows in 2013, followed by record highs in 2020.

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