The Great Lakes Essay

The Great Lakes are an important part of American and Canadian history. Connected to the United States in New York, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Wisconsin, and Minnesota and Canada the five Great Lakes, Superior, Michigan, Huron, Erie and Ontario, span over an area larger than 750 miles.  Home to more than 1/10th of the population of the United States and more that 1/4th of the population of Canada the Great Lakes have provides a long history of sustainability to the surrounding areas.

 The Great Lakes are the largest system of fresh, surface water on earth, containing roughly 18 percent of the world supply. Although the Great Lakes are a treasure to these great nations they are also susceptible to a wide range of problems including environmental discrepancies and unpredictable weather patterns (  In recent years the amount of natural resources, such as fresh water fish have been depleting because of industrial pollution as well as exotic plant and fish life entering the region and throwing off the ecosystem.  Exploring the physical aspects of the Great Lakes helps us to better understand the water life, the physical surroundings of each particular lake, and how that affects human and human culture in the Great Lakes area.

We Will Write a Custom Essay Specifically
For You For Only $13.90/page!

order now

The plant and animal life of the Great Lakes has been affected on a great scale over the last thirty years.  The waters of the Great Lakes “support an array of life that has evolved over thousands of years.  These freshwater seas, the Great Lakes, have been exploited and have received the fallout of modern Industry and agriculture.  They have been invaded by exotic species.  As a result, extinctions of fresh water life are taking place rapidly” (Spring, p. 13).  Although there have been many efforts to clean up the Great Lakes the reality lies in the fact that zebra mussels, and exotic Russian mussel which depletes nutrients with at an excruciatingly fast past, have interrupted the food chain system that had been in place at the lakes for thousands of years.  In just ten years, 1993-2003, the zebra mussels caused more that three billion dollars worth of damage to the lakes.   They actually decreased the population of Diporeia, a crustacean that live in the mud of fresh water lakes and are eaten by white fish, chub and sculpin, by 99 %.  And this is only the beginning as “the mussels are one of about 180 foreign species of all kinds that have invaded the Great Lakes, largely by hitching a ride on overseas shipping vessels” (Schulte).

The change in weather, most likely contributed to the fast pace of global warming, has caused damage to the lakes is many ways such as the way fresh water salmon reproduce.  Salmon travel and lay eggs in fast running streams of very cold water. “Clear, cold, swiftly running water picks up oxygen from the air as it flows.  Cold water can retain more oxygen than warm water” and this is oxygen retention is necessary for the eggs to gestate and hatch (Spring, 53) Because the eggs are no longer hatching “naturally, hatchery reared salmon are placed in tributary streams every year to replace the previous generations.  The money paid by sport fishers to buy the licenses finances the fish stocking program” (Spring p. 53).

            “The lake extends 575 miles from the north shores of Lake Superior to the south shores of Lake Erie, a spread of 8 degrees in latitude.  From west to east they stretch nearly 800 miles.  The drainage basin encompasses 200,000 square miles, an area almost as big a France.  In that basin live thirty-four million people, each of them affected in ways large and small by the lakes” (Dennis, p. 4).  The people pf the lakes are affected in ways such as zebra mussels destroying there boats and vessels.  Zebra mussels are not only affecting the ecosystem and boats and vessels but they are actually affecting the way of life of some lake residents. A study funded by the National Sea Grant College Program under the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and administrated through the Ohio Sea Grant Program and conducted by Ohio State University studied the “Lake Erie floor from the New York-Pennsylvania border to the lake’s western basin. They determined that by 1995, zebra mussels covered about 2,000 square kilometers of the lake bed’s soft sediment”.  Therefore causing swimming to be banned for some time in the Lake Erie area.  Zebra mussels also caused one town in “Michigan town (to lose) water for three days after a mussel colony clogged its water-intake pipe” (Schulte).

Jerry Dennis has the right idea when he describes the Great Lakes in his book, The Living Great Lakes: Searching for the Heart of the Inland Seas:

“To appreciate the magnitude of the great lakes you must get close to them.  Launch a boat on their waters or hike their beaches or climb the dunes, bluffs and rocky promontories that surround them and you will see, as people have scene since the days of the glaciers, that these lakes are pretty damn big.  It’s no wonder they’re sometimes upgraded to ‘Inland Seas’ and ‘Sweetwater Seas’.  Calling them lakes is like calling the Rockies hills.  Nobody is pretends they compare to the Atlantic or Pacific, but even the saltiest salt water mariners have been surprised to discover that the lakes contain a portion of ocean fury.”

Ocean fury is something the great lakes have indeed as the weather shifts from year to year and makes a great impact in our climate.  Great lakes storms effect the weather throughout the much of the country.  Ice is a major factor in the lakes and it is important to study and document this year after year.  Research shows:

“(The lakes) rarely have continuous ice coverage over their entire surface area due to a relatively temperate continental winter climate.  At study of Great Lakes teleconnections indicates that when the northern hemisphere upper air flow pattern includes a weak ridge over the west coast of North America atmospheric flow is primarily zonal (east to west), winter air temperatures tend to be mild and ice cover below average.  During winters dominated by a strong ridge over a North America Coast, flow tends to be meridinonal (north to south), air temperatures tend to be below normal, and ice cover tends to be average to above average”(Lam and Schertzer, pp.6.2 – 6.3)

It has also been found that the ice in the center of the Lakes region is highly sensitive and call changed on a moments notice or can remain stable.  “In the exposed mid lake areas, ice conditions can be highly transistor, changing by the  hour (ice movement, ice compaction, ice formation, ice melt) or can be relatively stable, not changing significantly in extent for several days or for a week or more”( Lam and Schertzer 6.4)

            Each lake is true and different to its own accord.  Exploring the surroundings of each individual lake in the Great Lakes system in necessary to fully under the physica1aspects of each lake as there are drastic physical differences in the surroundings and population.  Lake Superior is the largest fresh water lake in the world with shores in Michigan, Minnesota, and Ontario.   Lying over the midcontinetal rift system the shores of Lake Superior have been proven rich in many minerals.  Although all the waters of the all the Great Lakes are low Lake Superior has recently made the news.  On March 14th 2007 it has been reported that Lake Superior is just inches above its all time low causing problems with cargo shipments.   “In one instance, a 1,000-long U.S.-Flag Laker with a rated per-trip capacity of nearly 70,000 net tons was only able to carry 62,438 net tons. Another 1,000-footer with a designed capacity of 71,120 net tons left an ore dock with only 59,447 net tons in its cargo holds”(Neksvasil).   In other words, “At the end of last season, when Lake Superior was near its all-time low, our largest ships were loading 10,000 tons below their rated capacity. That’s a lot of cargo to leave at the dock” (Alexander).

 Lake Huron is the second largest lake with a circumference comparable to the state of West Virginia.   Although the second largest lake Huron is not heavily populated because the majority of the lake lies in the mountainous areas of Ontario.

Lake Michigan is the only great lake with all boarders in the United States.  The beaches are beautiful and covered in white sand. Over 12 million people live on the shores of Lake Michigan and call it home.  In recent news, “A combination of weather factors that caused water levels to drop in February could mean water levels on Lake Michigan will be lower this summer than in 2006, according to one government forecast”(Alexander).  Since 1998 “water levels have dropped nearly four feet in Lake Michigan. That change is significant because lower lake levels drive up the cost of shipping and can make recreational boating more dangerous” (Alexander).

 Lake Erie is the fourth largest of the lakes.  On the American side Lake Erie spans from Ohio to New York’s south west corner Lake Erie.  Erie is the shallowest lake and is famous for producing lake effect snow that makes Buffalo, NY one of the snowiest places in the United States.  Lake Erie is also home to the United States largest fresh water commercial fishery.

Lake Ontario is the smallest of the lakes and has shores in both New York and Ontario, Canada.  Lake Ontario has wonderful shores.

The physical aspect of the Great Lakes effect the human culture in each area in various ways.  Firstly and the most obvious affect is the breathtaking views and wonder shores.  It has been proven that although the shores are wonderful the water may not have the same quality.  From the zebra mussels across the lakes to various natural issues, such as unpredictable weather and ice conditions, the Great Lakes can become a concern for those in the surrounding areas.

The lakes have much to offer in the way of fresh water fish.  Although global warming is effecting the way some fish reproduce in the areas there has actually been a job area created in which we farm fresh water salmon first to repopulate the lakes and then to commercial it and make create a market for sport fishing.

One of the various problems we are finding with the Great Lake conditions is the effect low water levels are having on industries.  Shipping companies are beginning to have serious issues transporting cargo.  This is bound to have a domino effect causing problems with companies whose main source of export is the great lake system.  Recreational boaters are also beginning to feel this impact as low water conditions may cause boating to be dangerous this summer.

Understanding the physical aspects of the Great Lakes makes it clear that as the largest fresh water lake system in the world the Great Lakes have not only a strong effect on the people in their direct areas, but the Great Lake system has an effect on the entire world.  As a treasure we welcome the vast beauty and enjoyment opportunities provided by the lakes.  But it must also be kept in mind that the lakes are a source of our economy and the effects of global warming and environmental dangers are very apparent.  With great pleasure the United States and Canada are working together to help put a stop to these dangers by producing and enforcing” water quality agreements (working) towards restoration and maintenance of water quality in the Great Lakes and its connecting channels.”(Lam and Schertzer, p. 7.4)


Lam, David. Potential Climate Change Effects on Great Lakes Hydrodynamics and Water Quality.  Reston, Virginia, American Society of Civil Engineers, 1999.

Dennis, Jerry. The Living Great Lakes: Searching for the Heart of the Inland Seas. New York, New York, St. Martin’s Press, 2003.

Spring, Barbara.  Dynamic Great Lakes.  Baltimore, Maryland; Independence Books, 2002.

Schulte, Bret. Invasion of the Zebra Mussels: How political gridlock is helping a pesky mollusk gum up the Great Lakes.  US News and World Report. February 25, 2007.  Accessed March 15, 2007.  URL:

Nekvasil, Glen.  Business NorthBusiness North – The Daily Briefing – Business News “Falling water levels also trimmed loadings: Sluggish demand drops iron ore shipments in January.”  Business North 14 Mar 2007:  A: 3.

Alexander, Jeff. “Great Lakes levels plunge in February.”  Muskegon Chronicle. 13 Mar. 2007:;coll=8
Wagner, Holly. “STUDY SHOWS ZEBRA MUSSELS CAN COLONIZE SAND AND MUD” The Ohio State University. 22 May 1998: