We know our Great Lakes are awesome. Here’s how they stack up.

4 min read

By Nick RoutleyVisual Capitalist

In many parts of the world, you don’t have to look very far to find a lake.

According to satellite data, there are roughly 100 million lakes larger than one hectare (2.47 acres) to be found globally. The largest lakes, which rival the size of entire nations, are more of a rarity.

One might expect the world’s largest lakes to be very alike, but from depth to saline content, their properties can be quite different. As well, the ranking of the world’s largest lakes is far from static, as human activity can turn a massive body of water into a desert within a single generation.

Today’s graphic – created using the fantastic online tool, Slap It On A Map! – uses the Great Lakes region as a point of comparison for the largest 25 lakes, by area. This is particularly useful in comparing the scale of lakes that are located in disparate parts of the globe.

The Greatest Lakes

Lake Huron from Mackinac Island, photo: Nathan Fertig

The largest lake in the world by a long shot is the Caspian Sea – a name that hints at a past when it was contiguous with the ocean around 11 million years ago. This massive saline lake, which is nearly the same size as Japan, borders five countries: Kazakhstan, Russia, Turkmenistan, Azerbaijan, and Iran. An estimated 48 billion barrels of oil lay beneath the surface of the basin.

The five Great Lakes, which run along the Canada–U.S. border, form one of the largest collections of fresh water on Earth. This interconnected series of lakes represents around 20% of the world’s fresh water and the region supports over 100 million people, roughly equal to one-third of the Canada–U.S. population.

Amazingly, a single lake holds as much fresh water as all the Great Lakes combined – Lake Baikal. This rift lake in Siberia has a maximum depth of 5,371ft (1,637m). For comparison, the largest of the Great Lakes (Lake Superior) is only 25% as deep, with a maximum depth of 1,333ft (406m). Lake Baikal is unique in a number of other ways too. It is the world’s oldest, coldest lake, and around 80% of its animal species are endemic (not found anywhere else).

Here’s a full run-down of the top 25 lakes by area:

RankLake NameSurface AreaTypeCountries on shoreline
1Caspian Sea143,000 sq mi
Saline Kazakhstan
2Superior31,700 sq mi
Freshwater Canada
3Victoria26,590 sq mi
Freshwater Uganda
4Huron23,000 sq mi
Freshwater Canada
5Michigan22,000 sq mi
Freshwater U.S.
6Tanganyika12,600 sq mi
Freshwater Burundi
7Baikal12,200 sq mi
Freshwater Russia
8Great Bear Lake12,000 sq mi
Freshwater Canada
9Malawi11,400 sq mi
Freshwater Malawi
10Great Slave Lake10,000 sq mi
Freshwater Canada
11Erie9,900 sq mi
Freshwater Canada
12Winnipeg9,465 sq mi
Freshwater Canada
13Ontario7,320 sq mi
Freshwater Canada
14Ladoga7,000 sq mi
Freshwater Russia
15Balkhash6,300 sq mi
Saline Kazakhstan
16Vostok4,800 sq mi
Freshwater Antarctica
17Onega3,700 sq mi
Freshwater Russia
18Titicaca3,232 sq mi
Freshwater Bolivia
19Nicaragua3,191 sq mi
Freshwater Nicaragua
20Athabasca3,030 sq mi
Freshwater Canada
21Taymyr2,700 sq mi
Freshwater Russia
22Turkana2,473 sq mi
Saline Kenya
23Reindeer Lake2,440 sq mi
Freshwater Canada
24Issyk-Kul2,400 sq mi
Saline Kyrgyzstan
25Urmia2,317 sq mi
Saline Iran

Shrinking out of the rankings

Not far from the world’s largest lake, straddling the border between Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan, lay the sand dunes of the Aralkum Desert. In the not so distant past, this harsh environment was actually the bed of one of the largest lakes in the world – the Aral Sea.

Aral Sea receding 1960 2020

For reasons both climatic and anthropogenic, the Aral Sea began receding in the 1960s. This dramatic change in surface area took the Aral Sea from the fourth largest lake on Earth to not even ranking in the top 50. Researchers note that the size of the lake has fluctuated a lot over history, but through the lens of modern history these recent changes happened rapidly, leaving local economies devastated and former shoreside towns landlocked.

Lake Chad, in Saharan Africa, and Lake Urmia, in Iran, both face similar challenges, shrinking dramatically in recent decades.

How we work to reverse damage and avoid ecosystem collapse in vulnerable lakes will have a big influence on how the top 25 list may look in future years.

Source: Visual Capitalist

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