Nature and Biodiversity

From Superior to Eerie - how big are the Great Lakes?

image of a sunset over Lake Superior

Lake Superior - the largest of the Great Lakes. Image: Unsplash/NOAA

Iman Ghosh
Author, Visual Capitalist
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  • The Great Lakes is a distinct geographical region located between the U.S. and Canada.
  • Together they contain 21% of the world’s surface freshwater by volume, or 84% of the surface freshwater in North America.
  • Alex Varlamov has created the bathymetric visualization below, helping to put sizes of the different lakes in this region into perspective.
  • As well as popular outdoor landmarks, the Great Lakes are also vital to the economy, supporting 50 million jobs.
a visualisation showing the depths of the Great Lakes
Lake Superior is about eight times deeper than Lake Eerie, the shallowest of the Great Lakes. Image: Visual Capitalist/Alex Varlamov

Click here to view the interactive version of the visualization on Tableau.

Visualized: The depth of The great lakes

As the seasons change, it’s natural to want to enjoy the outdoors to the fullest. The Great Lakes, a distinct geographical region sandwiched between the U.S. and Canada, provides immense opportunity for millions of tourists to do just that every year.

But did you know that altogether the Great Lakes contain 21% of the world’s surface freshwater by volume—or 84% of the surface freshwater in North America?

This bathymetric visualization, created by Alex Varlamov, helps put the sheer size and depth of all five of the Great Lakes into perspective.

What is bathymetry?

Bathymetry is the study of the underwater depth of ocean or lake floors, a geographical science that falls under the wider umbrella of hydrography.

In essence, it is the underwater equivalent of topography. Contour lines help to represent and study the physical features of bodies of water, from oceans to lakes.

Most bathymetric studies are conducted via sonar systems, transmitting pulses that ‘ping’ off the ocean and lake floor, uncovering what lies below.

The depth of the Great Lakes, compared

High on the list of the world’s largest lakes, the five Great Lakes altogether account for over 244,700 km² (94,250 mi²) in total surface area. That’s bigger than the entire United Kingdom.

Lake Superior emerges, well, superior in terms of total surface area, water volume, and both average and maximum depth.

a chart comparing the size/measurements of the Great Lakes
With all measurements taken into account, Lake Superior is the largest of the Great Lakes. Image: Visual Capitalist

Lake Erie is by far the shallowest of the lakes, with an average depth of just 19 meters (62 ft). That means on average, Lake Superior is about eight times deeper.

With that in mind, one drawback of the visualization is that it doesn’t provide an accurate view of how deep these lakes are in relation to one another.

For that, check out this additional visualization also created by Alex Varlamov, which is scaled to the same 20 meter step—in this view, Lake Erie practically disappears.

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More than meets the eye

The Great Lakes are not only notable for their form, but also their function—they’re a crucial waterway contributing to the economy of the area, supporting over 50 million jobs and contributing $6 trillion to gross domestic product (GDP).

Together, the five Great Lakes feed into the Atlantic Ocean—and when we expand the scope to compare these lakes to vast oceans, trenches, and drill holes, the depth of the Great Lakes barely scratches the surface.

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The views expressed in this article are those of the author alone and not the World Economic Forum.

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