Facts and Trivia about North America's Great Lakes
Growing up as I did on the West and East Coasts of the United States, I was foolishly dismissive of the Great Lakes when I accepted a job offer in Chicago in the mid-1980s. I grew up mostly in Southern California, and spent literally years of my youth on the beach. I attended high school just a mile and a half from the Pacific Ocean and the famous Venice boardwalk. Both my grandparents were schoolteachers in beach communities. My father was a policeman in the beach town of Santa Monica, overlooking the vast Pacific Ocean. For a time I lived in Marina Del Rey—only a few blocks from the sea and one of the largest small craft harbors in Southern California.
So when I first moved to Chicago, I was surprised by the grandeur, the history, and the power of Lake Michigan. Describing the Great Lakes as simply “big lakes” may be accurate, but it doesn’t nearly do them justice.
For most of the past 25 years, I’ve lived and worked within six blocks of the shore of the Great Lakes. I’ve traveled around them, through them, over them, and across them, and I’ve learned a number of facts that helps put their significance into perspective for people that might not realize how important they are to North America.
The Size and Power of the Great Lakes
- The total surface of the Great Lakes is 94,250 square miles, about the size of the United Kingdom, and larger than Utah or Minnesota.
- Lake Superior is considered the largest freshwater lake in the world by surface area, and third largest by volume.
- The surface of Lake Superior is roughly the size of Austria, and its deepest point (1,332 feet) would submerge the Empire State Building with 80 feet to spare.
- The surface area of Lake Michigan-- the only Great Lake contained entirely within the United States-- is larger than the total land area of Croatia or Costa Rica.
- The Great Lakes contain 21% of the entire world’s fresh surface water supply.
- The amount of water in the Great Lakes could cover the entire 48 contiguous US States to a depth of 9.5 feet.
- Residents of Chicago in particular know the cooling or warming effect of Lake Michigan can often make as much as 10-20 degrees Fahrenheit difference between the coastline and inland areas; the official temperature station at O’Hare Airport, 12 miles from Lake Michigan, can often be misleading.
- Sustained high winds in one direction for several hours can result in waves as high as 12-16 feet on the Lake Michigan shore, and even higher on Lake Superior. Every year, waves and swells reach 20 feet or more on Lake Superior.
- Rogue waves are freakishly large waves that occur for little or no apparent reason, and can reach heights of 50 feet or more.
- On Lake Superior, a phenomenon known as the "Three Sisters" occurs when three large waves hit in rapid succession, overloading ship decks with tons of water. Some blame the phenomenon for the sinking of the SS Edmund Fitzgerald in November 1975.
- A seiche (pronounced “saysh”) is a rapid change in water level, caused by barometric pressure differences or high winds on different parts of a lake, which can be as severe as a tidal wave. On June 26, 1954, eight fishermen were swept away and drowned when a 10-foot seiche hit the Chicago waterfront without warning.
- Lake Superior is so huge and deep, it takes a drop of water 191 years to flow through the lake cycle; Superior could contain the water from all the other Great Lakes-- plus three additional Lake Eries.
The Importance of the Great Lakes
- The Welland Canal from Port Weller, Ontario in Lake Ontario to Port Colborne, Ontario on Lake Erie is the factor that limits the size of most Great Lakes ships. The canal allows ships to bypass Niagra Falls, but has a maximum depth of 25 feet and locks 766 feet long by 80 feet wide.
- More than 3,000 ocean and Great Lakes vessels pass through the Welland Canal each year, taking an average of 11 hours to travel the full distance through the various locks and canals.
- The reversal of the Chicago River in 1900 (from flowing into Lake Michigan to flowing out of the lake) has been named one of the Top 10 Public Works Projects of the 20th Century, and saved the city's water supply from typhoid, cholera, and dysentery epidemics that killed thousands in the two decades before its completion.
- The Great Lakes Compact is a binding agreement among the Great Lakes states to protect water from diversions and excessive withdrawals. Together with a similar agreement between the Canadian Provinces, it sets minimum requirements for water use across the Basin.
- Commercial fisheries in the Great Lakes harvested $45 million worth of fish as of 2000, but the recreational and sport fishing industries are estimated to be worth as much as $4-7 billion per year in economic impact.
- The main fishing targets of commercial fisheries in the Great Lakes are whitefish, yellow perch and walleye, which are net-caught and sold by the pound.
- Invasive species in the Great Lakes-- such as the zebra mussel, sea lamprey, and Asian carp-- threaten the commercial and recreational fishing. Many invasive species arrived in the lakes from the bilge and ballast tanks in large ocean-going vessels.
Travel and Tourism on the Great Lakes
- Since European settlers began sailing on the Great Lakes in the 17th Century, the Great Lakes Shipwreck Museum estimates 6,000 ships and 30,000 lives have been lost; yet other historians suggest the total could be as high as 25,000. Many shipwreck sites are found and preserved by diving societies.
- The Race to Mackinac, run by the Chicago Yacht Club since 1898, is one of the longest fresh-water races in the world with hundreds of boats in different classes competing each year. The 333-mile race begins at the mouth of the Chicago River and finishes in Round Island Channel in Lake Huron, just off Mackinac Island, Michigan.
- The State of Michigan alone has more than 120 lighthouses on its 3200 miles of Great Lakes coastline. There are 15 lighthouses on the Illinois and Indiana Great Lakes coastline, most of them still working.
- On Lake Michigan, enormous sand dunes have accumulated over the centuries from prevailing wind and waves on the Indiana and Southwest Michigan coastlines; Indiana Dunes State Park, Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore, and the Silver Lake Sand Dunes Area in Michigan are three of the most famous recreational areas.
- The S.S. Badger-- a 410' coal-powered ferryboat in service since 1953--makes two crossings of Lake Michigan between Manitowoc, Wisconsin and Luddington, Michigan every day during spring and fall, and four crossings a day in summer. For most of the four-hour crossing, no land is visible in any direction.
- An easy way to remember all the Great Lakes is the first letters in their names spells HOMES.