Mysteries of the Great Lakes®




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Did you know that 40 million people live along the Great Lakes?  Of those 40 million people, one in every three Canadians, and one in every seven Americans rely on the Great Lakes for their freshwater.

Mysteries of the Great Lakes is a timely film. All across the Great Lakes basin, there is a renewed interest in the health of the Lakes, and an increased awareness about the importance of this freshwater resource to the social and economic vitality of North America.  Dubbed ‘inland seas’ by early European explorers, the Great Lakes have some of the most spectacular wilderness scenery on Earth, and a fifth of all of the planet’s freshwater.

Quick Facts

  • It takes a drop of water nearly 400 years to travel from the headwaters of Lake Superior to the mouth of the St. Lawrence River
  • The Great Lakes - Lake Superior, Lake Huron, Lake Erie, Lake Ontario and Lake Michigan - are the largest group of freshwater lakes on Earth
  • The Great Lakes have some of the most spectacular wilderness sceneryon Earth, and a fifth of all the planet’s freshwater
  • The Great Lakes have more than 10,000 miles (16,000 kilometres) of shoreline
  • More than 40 million people live along the Great Lakes
  • Today, 25% of all Canadians, and 10% of Americans live on the Great Lakes

Lake Superior


  • Is the largest of the five Great Lakes of North America
  • Its northern boundary is in Ontario, Canada and Minnesota, USA, and its southern boundary is the U.S. states of Wisconsin and Michigan.
  • Is the largest freshwater lake in the world by surface area and is the world's fourth-largest freshwater lake by volume.
  • Alone holds as much water as all four of the other Great Lakes combined.
  • Has a surface area of 31,820 square miles (82,413 square km)
  • Has a maximum length of 350 miles (563 km) and maximum breadth of 160 miles (257 km).
  • Has an average depth of 483 feet (147 m) with a maximum depth of 1,333 feet (406 m).
  • Contains 2,900 cu mi (12,100 cu km) of water – the equivalent of 3 quadrillion (3,000,000,000,000,000) gallons.
  • Is large enough to have room for every man, woman, and child on Earth to spread out a 12’ x 12’ picnic blanket on its surface if entirely frozen (which has happened only twice in recorded history).
  • Is the final resting place for 350 ship wrecks.

Lake Michigan


  • Is the only Great Lake that is located entirely within the United States.  
  • Is bounded, from west to east, by the U.S. states of Wisconsin, Illinois, Indiana, and Michigan.
  • Is the largest freshwater lake in the US, and the largest lake entirely within one country by surface area, and the fifth largest lake in the world.
  • Has a surface area of 22,400 square miles (58,016 km)
  • Is 307 miles (494 km) long by 118 miles (190 km) wide with a shoreline 1,640 miles (2,633 km) long.
  • Has an average depth of 279 feet (85 m), while its greatest depth is 923 feet (281 m).
  • Contains a volume of 1,180 cubic miles (4,918 cubic km) of water.
  • Provides drinking water for the 1.7 million residents of Chicago, Illinois - the second most-populated city in the United States.

Lake Huron


  • Is the second largest of the Great Lakes.
  • Contains the largest island in any freshwater lake on Earth - Manitoulin Island.
  • Is bounded on the west by the state of Michigan and on the east by the province of Ontario.
  • Has a surface area of 23,010 square miles (59,596 km) making it the third  largest freshwater lake on Earth.
  • Contains a volume of 850 cubic miles (3,540 km), and a shoreline length of 3,827 miles (6,157 km).
  • Is 577 feet (176 m) above sea level.
  • Has an average depth of 195 feet (59 m), while the maximum depth is 750 feet (229 m).
  • Is 206 miles (332 km) in length and 183 miles (245 km) in breadth.

Lake Erie


  • Is the tenth largest lake on Earth and is the fourth largest by surface area, the southernmost, shallowest, and smallest by volume of the Great Lakes
  • Is bounded on the north by Ontario, on the south by the U.S. states of Ohio, Pennsylvania, and New York, and on the west by the state of Michigan.
  • Has an elevation of 571 feet (174 m) above sea level.
  • Has a surface area of 9,940 square miles (25,745 km) with a length of 241 miles (388 km) and breadth of 57 miles (92 km) at its widest points.
  • Is the shallowest of the Great Lakes with an average depth of 62 feet (19 m) and with a maximum depth of 210 feet (64 m).
  • The western section of Lake Erie, comprising one-fourth of the area, is shallower with an average depth of 42 feet (13 m) and a maximum depth of 62 feet (19 m)
  • Is home to Point Pelee National Park, which is the southernmost point of Canada's mainland.
  • Produces more fish each year for human consumption than the other four Great Lakes combined.

Lake Ontario


  • Is bounded on the north by Ontario and on the south by Ontario's Niagara Peninsula and by New York State, U.S.
  • Is the eastern-most and smallest in surface area (7,540 square miles, 19,529 km) of the Great Lakes
  • Exceeds Lake Erie in volume (393 cubic miles, 1639 km).
  • Is the 14th largest lake in the world and has a shoreline 712 miles (1146 km) long.
  • Has an elevation of 246 feet (75 m) above sea level.
  • Is 193 miles (311 km) in length, and 53 miles (85 km) in breadth
  • The average depth of Lake Ontario is 283 feet (86 m), with a maximum depth of 802 feet (244 m).
  • Is named for the Iroquois word “ontara” which means "lake," with “Ontario” translated as "beautiful lake.”
  • Provides drinking water for the 2.5 million residents of Toronto, the capital city of the province of Ontario, and Canada’s most-populated city.

Fresh Water Supply and Usage


  • One in every three Canadians and one in every seven Americans rely on the Great Lakes for their freshwater
  • In total, freshwater is estimated to contribute up to $23 billion annually to the Canadian economy, Environment Canada says.
  • Between 1972 and 1991, Canada's withdrawal of freshwater resources increased from 24 billion cubic metres per year to over 45 billion cubic metres per year – a rise of 80%: in the same period, the population increased only 3%
  • Less than 3% of the water produced at a large municipal water treatment plant is used for drinking purposes; during the summer, about half of all treated water is sprayed onto lawns and gardens
  • On average, 14% of municipal piped water is lost in pipeline leaks – up to 30% in some communities
  • Per capita, Canadians are the planet's second-biggest water consumers, behind Americans. The average Canadian uses 335 litres per day - more than double Europeans' usage. And Canadian water use is growing (by 25 per cent over the past two decades), while other developed countries, including the U.S., have seen consumption drop.
  • Canada has about 9% of the world's renewable freshwater supply, compared with 18% for Brazil, 9% for China, and 8% for the United States
  • Canada holds 20% of the world's freshwater, but has only 9% of the world's renewable freshwater supply; the rest is ''fossil water'', a legacy of the melting of large ice sheets that once covered much of Canada
  • Approximately 60% of Canada's freshwater drains north, while 90% of its population lives within 300km of its southern border

Environmental Issues


  • The water levels of the Great Lakes are now at lows that have not been seen since the 1920s.  Over the last century, the difference in water levels has ranged from nearly 4 feet for Lake Superior and between 6 and 7 feet for the other Great Lakes.
  • To date, nearly 150 alien species, have invaded the Great Lakes, resulting in catastrophic results for the indigenous wildlife of the lakes.
  • Over 360 chemical compounds have been identified in the Great Lakes.

Caribou on the Slate Islands


  • The weight of a female varies between 132 - 375 lb (60 and 170 kg).
  • Caribou are ruminants, having a four-chambered stomach. They mainly eat lichens in winter. However, they also eat the leaves of willows and birches, as well as sedges and grasses.
  • Mating occurs from late September or October to early November. Males battle for access to females. Two males will lock each other’s antlers together and try to push each other away.
  • Under normal circumstances, both sexes grow antlers.  However on the Slate Islands, with no predators to contend with, female caribou have evolved so that they no longer grow antlers.
  • Caribou do not compete for food sources with any other mammals on the Slate Islands, and they maintain their largest density on these islands than anywhere else on Earth.

Lake Sturgeon


  • The lake sturgeon is the largest freshwater fish in the world and is considered a living fossil because it has survived  - virtually unchanged - for over 100 million years.
  • Lake sturgeon are bottom-feeders with a partly cartilaginous skeleton and skin bearing rows of bony plates
  • It uses its elongated, spadelike snout to stir up the sand and silt on the beds of rivers and lakes while feeding. Barbels surrounding the mouth help it sense and manipulate food.
  • The lake sturgeon has taste buds on and around its barbels near its rubbery, prehensile lips. It extends its lips to vacuum up soft live food, which it swallows whole due to its lack of teeth. Its diet consists of insect larvae, worms (including leeches), and small fish.
  • Lake sturgeoncan grow to weigh an astonishing 300 pounds (135 kg), and can live to be nearly 200 years old. 
  • At one point, lake sturgeon was so plentiful that it represented 90% of the Great Lakes biomass.
  • In the late 1800s, due to over-fishing and the destruction and pollution of their spawning beds, lake sturgeon populations in the Great Lakes crashed. 
  • Lake sturgeon will travel great distances over their lifetimes, but will always return to the streams in which they hatched to spawn.
  • The lake sturgeon is a threatened species in many areas.

Bald Eagles


  • Bald Eagles were once common sights in the skies throughout North America – including the Great Lakes shoreline.  
  • In the 1950s Bald Eagles all but disappeared due to the effects of the pesticide DDT, or dichlorodiphenyltrichloroethane.
  • Exposure to DDT interfered with the eagles’ ability to reproduce. 
  • The Bald Eagle is a large bird, with a body length of 28–38 in (71–96 centimeters), a wingspan of 66–88 in (168–244 centimeters), and a mass of 3–6.3 kilograms (6.6–14 lb);
  • Females are about 25 percent larger than males.
  • The adult Bald Eagle has a brown body with a white head and tail, and bright yellow irises, taloned feet, and a hooked beak; juveniles are completely brown except for the yellow feet. Males and females are identical in plumage coloration.
  • Its diet consists mainly of fish, but it is an opportunistic feeder. It hunts fish by swooping down and snatching the fish out of the water with its talons. It is sexually mature at four years or five years of age.
  • The Bald Eagle builds the largest nest of any North American bird, up to 13 ft (4 meters) deep, 8 ft (2.5 meters) wide, and 1.1 tons (1 tonne) in weight.

Shipping on the Great Lakes


  • The St. Lawrence Seaway opened in April of 1959.
  • The Seaway extends 2,340 miles (3,700 km) from the Atlantic Ocean to the head of the Great Lakes.
  • The Seaway includes a system of locks that lift ships up and down over three areas where barriers to shipping are encountered.
  • The Seaway system is connected by 6 short canals with a total length of less than 60 nautical miles (111 km).
  • There are 19 locks, filled and emptied by gravity.
  • Ships measuring up to 740 feet in length (225 m) and 78 feet (24 metres) in the beam are routinely raised to more than 590 feet (80 metres) above sea level, as high as a 60-story building.
  • The ships are twice as long and half as wide as a football field and carry cargoes the equivalent of 27,500 tons (25,000 tonnes).
  • Each lock is 766 feet (234 metres) long, 80 feet (24 m) wide and 30 feet (9 m) deep over the sill.
  • A lock fills with approximately 24 million gallons (91 million L) of water in just 7 to 10 minutes.
  • Getting through a lock takes about 45 minutes.
  • Annual commerce exceeds 200 million net tons (180 million net tonnes). 
  • It is estimated that between 6,000 and 10,000 ships have sunk or been stranded on the Great Lakes since the early 1800s. 
  • The most famous shipwreck, happened on November 10, 1975 when Lake Superior claimed the S.S. Edmund Fitzgerald – the last major freighter to be lost on the Lakes. 
  • The Great Lakes Storm of 1913 is the worst Great Lakes storm on record.  The blizzard hit from November 7 to 10, 1913.
  • The storm of 1913 included hurricane-force winds, whiteout snow squalls and produced waves over 35 feet (11 m) high. 
  • The storm of 1913 affected ships on four of the five Great Lakes.  More than 250 people were killed, 19 ships were destroyed and 19 others were left stranded. 
  • The storm of 1913 was the deadliest, and most destructive natural disaster ever to hit the Great Lakes. 
  • During the storm of 1913 more than 75,000 tons (68,000 tonnes) of cargo was lost, and the financial loss in vessels was nearly $5 million dollars (the equivalent of about $100 million at current value).

Let's talk



Darla Stoddart

Manager, Traveling Exhibitions and Touring Operations
+1 705 522 3701 ext 330
stoddart@sciencenorth.ca