Physical Characteristics of the Great Lakes

Instructor: David Wood

David has taught Honors Physics, AP Physics, IB Physics and general science courses. He has a Masters in Education, and a Bachelors in Physics.

What makes the Great Lakes so great? Learn about the lakes' defining physical features and characteristics, and why they're so important to us. Find out how great you were at picking up this knowledge with a quiz.

What are the Great Lakes?

Imagine you're an astronaut, looking out of the window of the International Space Station. As you watch your home planet rotating below, you try to pick out recognizable landmarks. There's the Great Wall of China! And the huge, icy landmass of Antarctica. Then North America comes into view, and your eyes light up as you spot one of the continent's most recognizable features: the Great Lakes.

The Great Lakes are the five largest and most famous lakes in North America, found along the border of the United States and Canada. They include Lakes Ontario, Erie, Huron, Michigan, and Superior. Collectively, the lakes are connected to eight U.S. states and Ontario.

The Great Lakes are visible from space.
Satellite Image of the Great Lakes

The lakes formed 10,000 years ago during the last ice age, which is a period where the Earth was colder than usual. During this ice age, the ice caps expanded over more land, creating huge glaciers that carved out new valleys. As the glaciers retreated north and the Earth warmed again, the melted water filled the newly carved land. This created the Great Lakes.

The Great Lakes are one of North America's greatest natural resources. They're a hotbed for animal and plant life, act as trade routes for ships, and provide a ton of recreational space for Americans and Canadians alike. From beaches and water sports to fishing and wildlife viewing, there are more than 10,000 miles of shoreline to explore.

Cities have sprung up along their coasts, including Toronto, Chicago, Cleveland, Milwaukee, Buffalo, and Detroit. Those cities were built on trade, with ships sailing on the Great Lakes for thousands of miles to bring goods back and forth.

Detroit is one of several large cities on the Great Lakes.
Detroit: One of Many Cities on the Great Lakes

The Physical Characteristics of the Great Lakes

The Great Lakes are called 'great' for a reason: they dominate the landscape. The Great Lakes' most defining characteristics are their size and depth. Lake Superior is the largest of the lakes, with a surface area of approximately 32,000 square miles. That makes it about the same size as South Carolina! It's the second largest lake in the world. Lake Superior also has a depth of more than 1,300 feet, which is deep enough to hold the entire Empire State Building and then some. No other lake comes close.

The basic stats for the Great Lakes are pretty impressive.
Great Lakes Depth

The lakes altogether total an area of 94,000 square miles, which is more than a third the size of Texas. They are peppered with small islands and welcome visitors with miles of beautiful beaches. Lake Superior alone has more than 2,700 miles of coastline if you count its islands--for comparison, the round-trip drive from Maine to Florida is right about 3,000 miles. That's a lot of coastline!

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