This blog is a look at the most important shared resources Canada and the US have; The Great Lakes, the largest freshwater system in the world. Having lived close to Lake Huron or Lake Ontario most of my life, and then moving overseas, I’ve realized that a lot of people who haven’t seen The Great Lakes don’t really understand their size and importance of. They are fascinating and vital not only to Canada and the US but to the world and they need to be taken care of.
One thing to note upfront: as the lakes are located across two countries, one province, and multiple states, the information available is sometimes country-, province-, or state-specific and it is very hard to compile a clear image of the entire region. Therefore, sometimes I will use resources from various locations and it will seem I have omitted it from other areas.
Growing up in Southern Ontario, on the shores of Lake Huron, I thought everyone in the world had access to such vast amounts of freshwater. It wasn’t until I was a bit older that I realized what most people thought was a lake looked more like a pond to me (though beautiful and important too, just different). Having moved across the Atlantic it has surprised me how little people really grasp the size of the Great Lakes; honestly, most people look at me like I am crazy when I say two of the Netherlands can fit in the surface area of Lake Superior. Until someone sees these lakes in person, I just don’t think they can understand. However, my goal today is to try.
The Great Lakes in their current form are a result of glaciation about 14 000 years ago. The retreating of the glaciers, with their incredible mass, caused the land surface to begin slowly rising. This rise resulted in the closure of outlets and allowed water to build up in the area of the Great Lakes. Over time they have turned into what we see today. However, the land surface in the area continues to rise and, with time, will look different.
The coastline along these lakes varies dramatically from place to place. On the west side of Georgian Bay it is at the base of the Niagara Escarpment made up of beautiful sedimentary rocks. However, if you head over to the east side of Georgian Bay you are standing on the beautiful metamorphic rock formations that make up the Canadian Shield. There are large freshwater sand dune systems on all of the lakes, but Michigan State is home to the largest one in the world. After my blog on the importance of dunes to The Netherlands, it is important to note that the dunes offer the same importance to the Great Lakes Regions with flora and fauna that are unique and a coast defence against rising water levels.
The ecosystem around the Great Lakes is in many ways unique. It is home to 3500 unique species of flora and fauna that are found nowhere else on the earth. Some of the bottom water dwellers are very unique to cold-water lakes in northern latitudes. When discovered, the lakes were home to at least 150 different species of fish. Given the size of the area that the lakes cover, the flora varies dramatically between plants that can tolerate average annual temperatures as low as -40 C and those that can only handle temperatures as low as -15C. Therefore, plant life in Minnesota and northwestern Ontario varies dramatically from the plant life along Lake Erie on both sides of the border. It is the same with the wildlife. Climate change is causing the flora and fauna of the area to change and specifically, the flora is having a difficult time keeping up with the warming.
Another one of the amazing features of the Great Lakes is the incredible amounts of snowfall due to what is called the lake effect. From the US Weather Service:
Lake effect snow is common across the Great Lakes region during the late fall and winter. Lake Effect snow occurs when cold air, often originating from Canada, moves across the open waters of the Great Lakes. As the cold air passes over the unfrozen and relatively warm waters of the Great Lakes, warmth and moisture are transferred into the lowest portion of the atmosphere. The air rises, clouds form and grow into narrow band that produces 2 to 3 inches of snow per hour or more.
This snowfall can be very localized and sometimes accumulation can be very fast. This effect creates what are called snow belts; areas where there is regularly very heavy snowfall and accumulation. Often with such snowstorms highways and schools are closed sometimes for an entire week or more. There can also be power outages associated with this snowfall. London, Ontario, and Buffalo, New York are often having to clean up from such storms. In addition, there have been times when the news reports show houses and cars along the southern shore of Lake Erie covered in thick ice. It looks incredible, but it causes so much damage.
The lakes have been very important and continue to be important to the economy of both Canada and the US. Aside from fishing and recreation, the lakes have influenced many other industries. Early on, forestry was one of the important industries, however, the once vast areas of forest have declined due to deforestation. Mining has also been important along the lakes, moving such resources as iron ore, salt, and copper. Clean sand has also been an important resource for industry. The auto industry and steel industry have also capitalized on the ease of moving cargo on the lakes.
When it comes to the anthropogenic effects on these lakes, Lake Erie is almost always the first one affected. It is the shallowest and smallest and warms up the most. All of these factors led to it showing the signs of environmental damage first. As a child in the 1970s, we were always hearing about how polluted Lake Erie was. In the 1980s there was a push on to improve the water quality of the lake and by the 1990s it was considered a major environmental success. However, it is once again suffering from algal blooms that occur due to sewage discharge and agricultural impacts.
The Great Lakes are a topic that is near and dear to my heart and I could go on forever on the topic. Maybe in the future, there will be more blogs on them. However, for now, this was just meant to give an understanding of what an important resource the lakes are to Canada, the US, and the world. We must all take action to help preserve the water quality and flora and fauna of the Great Lakes.