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Great Lakes
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Great Lakes

For alternate meanings, see Great Lakes (disambiguation).

The Great Lakes are a group of five large lakes on or near the United States-Canadian border. They are the largest group of freshwater lakes in the world, and the Great Lakes-St. Lawrence system is the largest fresh-water system in the world. They are sometimes referred to as inland seas.

Table of contents
1 Lakes
2 Geologic pre-history
3 Economy of the Great Lakes


The Great Lakes are (west to east, general direction of water flow):

A commonly used mnemonic for remembering the names of the lakes is HOMES, for Huron, Ontario, Michigan, Erie, and Superior, although this mnemonic puts the lakes in no particular order.

A smaller sixth lake, Lake St. Clair, is part of the Great Lakes system between Lake Huron and Lake Erie but is not officially one of the Great Lakes. The system also includes the St. Mary's River between Lake Superior and Lake Huron, the St. Clair River between Lake Huron and Lake St. Clair, the Detroit River between Lake St. Clair and Lake Erie, and the Niagara River and Niagara Falls, between Lake Erie and Lake Ontario. Lake Huron is usually divided into Lake Huron and Georgian Bay.

Four of these lakes straddle the U.S.-Canada border; the fifth, Lake Michigan, is entirely within the United States. The Saint Lawrence River, which marks the same international border for portions of its course, is a primary outlet of these interconnected lakes, and flows through Quebec and past the Gaspé Peninsula; to the northern Atlantic Ocean.

The Saint Lawrence Seaway and Great Lakes Waterway opened the Great Lakes to ocean-going vessels. However the move to wider ocean-going container ships which do not fit through the locks has limited commerce.

Despite their vast size, large sections of the Great Lakes freeze over in winter, and most shipping stops during that season. There are some icebreakers that operate on the lakes.

Geologic pre-history

The Great Lakes were formed at the end of the last ice age, about 10,000 years ago, when the Laurentide Glaciation receded. When this happened, the giant glacier scratched a deep hole within the Earth's surface. The melting also left behind a large amount of meltwater (see Lake Agassiz) which filled up these holes, which were soon to become the Great Lakes. Because of the uneven nature of glacier erosion, some higher hills became Great Lakes islands.

Economy of the Great Lakes

The lakes are heavily used for transportation, though cargo traffic has decreased considerably in recent years. Storms and reefs are a common threat, and many ships have sunk in these waters. The Edmund Fitzgerald was the last major freighter lost on the lakes. The Great Lakes Waterway makes each of the lakes accessible.

Evolution of shipping

During settlement, the Great Lakes and its rivers were the only practical means of moving people and freight. Anything and everything floated on the lakes. Some ended up on the bottom due to storms, fires, collisions and underwater hazards. (See Edmund Fitzgerald and Le Griffon.)

The main business of many of the passenger lines in the 1800s was transporting immigrants. Many of the larger cities owe their existence to their position on the lakes as well as being a magnet for immigrants. After railroads and surface roads developed the passenger business dwindled and, excepting ferries and a few foreign cruise ships, now has vanished.

The immigration routes still have an effect today. Immigrants often formed their own communities and some areas have a pronounced ethnicity, say Dutch, German, Polish or Finnish, among many others. Since many immigrants settled for a time in New England before moving westward, many areas on the U.S. side of the Great Lakes also have a New England feel, especially in home styles and accent.

Since general freight these days is transported by railroads and trucks (lorries), domestic ships mostly move bulk cargoes, such as iron ore and its derivatives, coal and limestone for the steel industry. The domestic bulk freight developed because of the nearby mines. It was more economical to transport the ingredients for steel to centralized plants rather than try to make steel on the spot. Ingredients for steel, however, are not the only bulk shipments made.

Because the lake maritime community largely developed independently, it has its own language. Ships, no matter the size, are referred to as boats. When the sailing ships gave way to steamships, they were called steamboats--the same term used on the Mississippi. The ships also have a distinctive design. Ships that primarily trade on the lakes are known as lakers. Foreign boats are known as salties.

One of the more common sights on the lakes is the 1,000 by 105-foot, 60,000-ton (U.S. long ton) self-unloader. This is a laker with a huge conveyor belt system that can unload itself by swinging a crane over the side. Understandably, because most things go by land and the fact that one modern ship is the equivalent of many older ships, the Great Lakes fleet is a fraction of what it once was.

Modern economy

The Great Lakes are used as a major mode of transportation for bulk goods. The brigantine Le Griffon, which was commissioned by René Robert Cavelier, Sieur de La Salle, was towed to the southern end of the Niagara River, to become the first ship to sail the upper Great Lakes on August 7, 1679.

In 2002, 162 million net tons of dry bulk cargo was moved on the Lakes. This was, in order of volume, iron ore, coal, stone, grain, salt, cement and potash. The iron ore and much of the stone and coal are used in the steel industry. There is also some shipping of liquid and containerized cargo but most container ship cannot pass the locks on the Saint Lawrence Seaway because they are too wide. The total amount of shipping on the lakes has been on a downward trend for several years.

Recreational boating and tourism are major industries on the Great Lakes. A few small cruise ships operate on the Great Lakes including a couple of sailing ships. Sport fishing, commercial fishing and Native American fishing represents a 4 billion dollar (US) a year industry with salmon, whitefish, smelt, lake trout, and walleye being major catches.

The Great Lakes are used to supply drinking water to tens of millions of people in bordering areas.

Several ferries operate on the Great Lakes to carry passengers to various islands, including Isle Royale, Pelee Island, Mackinac Island, Beaver Island, both Bois Blanc Islands, Kellys Island, South Bass Island, North Manitou Island, South Manitou Island, Harsens Island, Manitoulin Island, and the Toronto Islands. As of May, 2004, the only car ferry service across one of the Great Lakes operated across Lake Michigan from Ludington, Michigan to Manitowoc, Wisconsin. However, two additional car ferries are expected to begin service in June 2004: a second Lake Michigan route, from Milwaukee, Wisconsin, to Muskegon, Michigan, and an international ferry across Lake Ontario from Rochester, New York, to Toronto, Ontario.

The lakes have an effect on weather, known, logically, as lake effect. The presence of so much water as well as the temperature of the water plus the wind can combine to temper or even control the weather downwind. The most dramatic example is the amount of snow that falls on Buffalo, New York during the winter from moisture thrown off by Lake Erie. Other effects may be more subtle, such as the temperature buffering that produces areas known as "fruit belts," where fruit typically grown further south can be produced in commercial quantities.

Political issues

Lake Champlain in upstate New York briefly became the sixth "Great Lake of the United States" on March 6, 1998, when President Clinton signed Senate Bill 927. This bill, which reauthorized the Sea Grant Program, contained a line penned by Senator Patrick Leahy (D-VT) declaring Lake Champlain to be a Great Lake. Not coincidentally, this status allows neighboring states to apply for additional federal research and education funds allocated to these national resources. Following a small uproar (and several New York Times articles), the Great Lake status was rescinded (although Vermont universities continue to receive funds to monitor and study the lake.)

To be written:

See also: Frontenac (the first steamer on the lakes, launched June 5, 1817).

Great Lakes
Lake Superior | Lake Michigan | Lake Huron | Lake Erie | Lake Ontario