The Great Lakes of the U.S. don’t come by their name by accident. The unique five-lake system boasts a fascinating history and other unusual claims to fame.
The five members of the group — Huron, Ontario, Michigan, Erie and Superior — contain more than one-fifth of all the world’s fresh surface water. That’s 6 quadrillion gallons of water. If you grew up around the Great Lakes, or are just a geography trivia buff, you might have known that already. But there’s a lot more to the Great Lakes that you might not be aware of. Following are 10 strange, little-known or just interesting facts about the Great Lakes:
- How much water do the Great Lakes hold? If you were able to pour the lakes’ contents out across the lower 48 states of the U.S., you’d create one gigantic swimming pool nine-and-a-half feet deep from coast to coast.
- The easiest way to remember all the Great Lakes’ names is to think of the word, “HOMES.” As in H(uron), O(ntario), M(ichigan), E(rie) and S(uperior).
- While Chicago’s nickname as “The Windy City” might not have come from its lake breezes (another theory attributes the name to the town’s loud-mouthed politicians), Lake Michigan and the other Great Lakes offer huge wind-energy potential. A 2004 study estimated the region’s wind-power potential at 359 gigawatts of energy, or 80 percent of all the fossil fuel-based electricity currently generated in both the U.S. and Canada.
- The Great Lakes themselves were formed at the end of the last ice age, when melting glaciers filled the region with fresh water. However, the earliest seed for the lakes was planted some 2 billion years ago, when two tectonic plates collided and formed the valley that eventually became Lake Superior.
- Because of their vast size and depth, the Great Lakes exert significant effects on the region’s weather. In winter, winds blowing over the lakes can generate heavy “lake-effect” snowstorms over shore areas. In 1954, the lakes even helped rev up Hurricane Hazel after the storm made landfall, leading to massive destruction in the Mid-Atlantic States and Canada.
- In the late summer of 1996, warm-air circulation patterns over the Great Lakes actually generated a subtropical cyclone. The storm, dubbed “Hurricane Huron,” caused widespread flooding in many parts of the region.
- Other regions of the U.S. — especially the chronically parched Southwest — occasionally eye the Great Lakes as a potential source of fresh water for their residents. However, politicians from the eight states surrounding the Great Lakes are working on a compact that would bar any bulk transfers of water from the basin to other parts of the country.
- The last major shipwreck on the Great Lakes was the S.S. Edmund Fitzgerald, once the largest ship to travel the lakes. During a winter storm in November 1975, the ship went down about 30 miles from shore in Lake Superior. Singer-songwriter Gordon Lightfoot made the tragedy famous with his ballad, “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald.”
- While the Great Lakes are home to numerous native species of fish and other creatures, they also are a haven for invasive species accidentally brought in by shipping traffic or canals. One of the most infamous invaders, the Zebra mussel, was blamed for more than $5 billion in economic damages during the late 1980s and early 1990s.
- In addition to the five Great Lakes, there have been a couple of Great Lake Wanna-Bes: the U.S. federal government declared Lake Champlain to be the sixth Great Lake in 1998, though the designation lasted only 18 days before being withdrawn. Some fans of Lake St. Clair have tried to win a similar title for their lake, although the movement hasn’t gone anywhere.