The Great Lakes are pretty darn great & big! Anyone seeing one for the first time is awe-struck at how big it is and they can’t believe it’s not an ocean. Keep reading to learn all about their greatness and why they are at risk.
The Great Lakes are not just an important part of my recreational life but play a much bigger role and they should be something you care about too, even if you don’t live near them!
Lake Huron on the shores of Saugeen First Nations #29
Located in North American northern-midwest on the border of Canada and the US.
The Great Lakes are one of the world’s largest freshwater ecosytem; The 5 lakes make up 21% of all freshwater on earth
- Bordering 8 US states & 1 Canadian Province (Ontario is big!)
- They have enough water to cover the continuous land of the US by 3 meters deep
- The square kilometres of the 5 lakes (244106 sq/km or 94259 sq/miles) is larger than the UK.
How did they form?
- The formation took place during the last ice age (10,000 years ago)
- Advancing and retreating glaciers that covered the earth, carved out the valleys which were filled with the melting glaciers.
View of Sleeping Giant Provincial Park on Lake Superior from Thunder Bay Ontario
Lake Superior from Sleeping Giant Provincial Park Ontario
Did you know?
- All of the lakes are interconnected running from Superior to Michigan to Huron to Erie to Ontario
- Water spends approx. 200 years in Lake Superior before moving into Lake Michigan
- The Lakes provide drinking water for over 40 million people
- Billions of litres of water are used for industries and farms. Plus approx. 42 million tons of cargo move through the water each year.
- The Great Lakes water moves over 3,200 km
- After Lake Ontario, water leaves the Great Lakes via the St Lawrence River into the Atlantic Ocean (approx: 1% yearly)
- The Great lakes have the longest coastline in the continental US.
- Lake Huron and Lake Michigan are technically the same lake. They are joined through a 8-km-wide (5 mile) and 37 meters deep (120 ft) open-water – Straits of Mackinac.
- 3 different types of habitats around the lakes: Wetlands, Grasslands and Forest
- The lakes are home to over 3,500 species
- Clear Great Lakes water doesn’t mean it’s healthy. The clarity is due to the invasive mussels filtering phytoplankton.
- The Great Lakes play a big role in water filtration, nutrients cycling and flood control
- You can surf the Great Lakes
- Niagara Falls is part of the Great Lakes. Water flowing from Lake Erie to Lake Ontario over the Niagara Escarpment creates Niagara Falls.
Who owns the Great Lakes?
The lakes are shared between Canada and the US
It’s important to recognize that the Great Lakes were first inhabited by First Nations People.
Sadly it is difficult to find accurate historical information on the First Nations People around the Great Lakes but it’s acknowledged that roughly 120 different Nations inhabited this region. As Darlene Johnson, professor of Law at the University of Toronto, writes in her report “Connecting People to Place: Great Lakes Aboriginal History in Cultural Context” it’s extremely difficult to find evidence of group identity since you need to consider what they called themselves and what they were called by others. Not only did many First Nations speak different languages but the French (First Europeans to reach the Great Lakes) explorers & missionaries also spoke a different language. Thus names for particular groups aren’t always referred to in the same way.
Currently, there are still several land-titles owned by First Nations Peoples. Based on the treaties and wrongdoings of the government there should be more First Nation Peoples’ designated land. Like many countries, Canada has its own disgraceful history that still needs mending and work. If you’re interested in North American First Nations Peoples relationship with non-natives through history, pop culture and the shifting of treaties I fully recommend you read “The Inconvenient Indian” by Thomas King
My family cottage is on Saugeen First Nations #29 in Sauble Beach located on the shores of Lake Huron. Our family owns the physical cottage but leases the land.
Lake Huron on the shores of Saugeen First Nations #29
- Contains half the Great Lakes water
- Deepest (406 meters / 1333 feet)
- Home to the worlds largest freshwater dunes
- Second deepest at 281 meters (923 feet)
- Third largest by surface area
- Longest shoreline
- Depth of 229 meters (750 feet)
- Third largest by water volume
- Heavily forested with 7,000-year-old petrified trees
- Warmest and shallowest (64 meters / 210 feet)
- Biggest algal bloom problem.
- Water plunges 50+ meters from Erie into Ontario at Niagara Falls
- Smallest by surface area
- Depth of 244 meters (802 feet)
- Agricultural runoff from extensive use of fertilizer
- Overflowing sewers
The above creates an abundance of nutrients and leads to toxic algal blooms, robbing the waters of oxygen and sunlight, suffocating plants and animals.
- Foreign species have disrupted the food web and been a detriment to native species. Many arrived on freighters and some were introduced by sportfishing
- There are more than 180 non-native species such as Zebra mussels, sea lampreys and Asian carp
- Warmer waters stress the native flora and fauna
- Warming also reduces the number of days the lakes are iced-cover, thus meaning warmer water in the spring and summer.
Lake Huron, Sauble Beach sunset garbage pick up
How Can You help?
- Pick up garbage. Check out the blog: Cleaning Up Trash from a Paddleboard
- Dispose of your waste properly: recycle and composed when possible, take oils and paints to the proper facility. Don’t put yard waste in the streets
- Rinse off your board, paddle, boat, gear, etc.
- Reduce water waste – Install rain barrels, take shorter showers, don’t run the tap while brushing your teeth
- Choose a phosphorus-free fertilizer or ditch it altogether
- Educate yourself. See resources below. Share the information!
- Donate to an organization
- WWF work to help the threat against the Great Lakes
- Freshwater Future
- The Nature Conservancy works with farmers to reduce the flow of phosphorus into the Great Lakes
- Become a member of Friends of the Detroit River . They are restoring waterways and land in Michigan and Ontario.
- Purchase wild rice from The Ojibwe (an Anishinaabe tribe) who consider it sacred and have grown it for centuries. This will help bring money to the local economy and it helps promote sustainable development.
Lake Ontario, Hamilton garbage pick up
Further Learning and Resources:
Some of the following is where my research came from for this blog.
- Dec 2020 National Geographic feature “North America’s Most Valuable Resources is at Risk” is a must-read. Unfortunately, you either have to have bought that month’s magazine or be a subscriber to view the content.
- National Geographic also did an article in the September 2020 issue about the loss of ice overwinter on the Great Lakes.
- 5-minute video-Ed “What’s so great about the Great Lakes’
- Great Lakes Guide
- A Citizens Guide to Protecting the Great Lakes
- Protecting the Great Lakes – Ontario Government
- Great Lakes Now
- WWF Great Lakes
- Great Lakes Now
- Great Lakes Commission