The Great Lakes of North America

The Great Lakes of North America are world famous, and most people are aware that it is the collective name given to lakes Superior, Michigan, Huron, Erie and Ontario. Fewer people are perhaps aware though as to why the Great Lakes are given the accolade of being “Great”.

The individual lakes were named over a number of years for a number of different reasons. Lake Superior was named because in French Lac Supérieur, means “the upper lake.” Lake Michigan was an anglicised form of the name given to the body of water by the local people, “Michi gami”. Lake Huron was named after the tribe of indigenous people, the Hurons, who lived by the lake. The name Lake Erie comes from another indigenous word, Erielhonan, meaning “long tail”, a word used by the local Iroquois to describe themselves. Finally, Lake Ontario was named for the Iroquois word that means “beautiful lake”.

The term Great Lakes is a descriptive one, because they are just that, great. Some of the statistics surrounding the five interconnected lakes and their basins are astounding.

The five Great Lakes contain in the region of 6 quadrillion gallons of fresh water. This figure alone is hard enough to get your head around, it is 6 with 15 zeros after it, but this volume means that one fifth of all of the earth’s fresh surface water is to be found in these five lakes.  This fact means that only Siberia’s Lake Baikal and the two ice caps contain more water. If the Great Lakes were to disappear tomorrow the dispersed water would be sufficient to cover the surface of mainland United States to a depth of over nine foot.

The Great Lakes are today used for transport and recreation, but whilst travelling across the water it can be difficult to appreciate just how large the lakes are. Their combined surface area equates to 94,000 square miles, an area that is greater than that of Great Britain. The 10,900 miles of coastline is, if straightened out, is also long enough to stretch two fifths around the circumference of the earth.

The water is also home to some 35,000 islands, including Manitoulin Island, the largest island to be found on any lake.

The accolade Great is rightly given to the five Great Lakes of North America, if for nothing else, for the size and volume of water held within them.