Lake Michigan-Huron

Remapping the World’s Largest Lakes

Wikipedia’s article on the world’s largest lakes by surface area features a fantastic map of the fifteen largest, using the dymaxion projection devised by the inimitable Buckminster Fuller. As can be seen, more than half fit into the category of the “Greater Great Lakes of North America” as defined in the previous GeoCurrents article. It is interesting that all these lakes except Ladoga are arrayed along a single sinuous curve that extends from Lake Malawi in southern Africa to Lake Ontario in eastern North America. But intriguing though it is, this arrangement is essentially just a feature of the map projection.

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Close inspection reveals that the Wikipedia map includes a significant “ghost”: the Aral Sea, which was until recently a huge brackish lake in Central Asia. It has largely vanished over the past half-century due to the diversion of most of the flow of the Anu Darya and Syr Darya rivers that feed it into agricultural fields. I have redrafted the Wikipedia map to show this lake as it existed circa 1960.  It was then, by conventional criteria, the third largest lake in the world (by surface area).

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The third map, posted below, takes this redrafting exercise two more steps. Limiting its purview to freshwater lakes, it deletes the Caspian Sea, the world’s largest lake by a considerable margin. (It does include Lake Balkhash in Central Asia; although the eastern part of this lake is saline, its larger western segment is fresh.) Using strict hydrological criteria, it also combines Huron and Michigan into a single entity, which can be called either Lake Michigan-Huron or Lake Huron-Michigan. This water body is actually the world’s largest freshwater lake.

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Misleading Lists of Large Lakes

Conventional lists of the world’s largest lakes by area are often misleading. Most claim that the Aral Sea is one of the Earth’s most extensive bodies of inland water, some placing it in the fourth position, and others, including infoplease and factmonster, in sixth place. In actuality, the Aral Sea has virtually disappeared, and now is essentially a massive salt-flat, as can be seen in the paired images to the left. As a result, it should be deleted from such lists.

Second-place standing is also controversial. Most lists place Lake Superior in this position, including AboutGeography. The Wikipedia, however, has demoted Superior to third place, as it claims that Lake Michigan and Lake Huron are actually a single lake, the world’s second largest. From a strictly limnological point of view, it is difficult to argue with this assessment.

The Wikipedia list of the largest lakes conveniently includes small maps, made to scale, of the water-bodies in question. I have copied and traced out several of these images to construct a simple map overlay that shows relative sizes of a few noted lakes. The massive extent of the Caspian Sea (which is actually a lake) is evident, dwarfing the combined Michigan-Huron. Michigan-Huron, in turn, is shown to be massively larger that Kyrgyzstan’s Issyk-Kul (in maroon), the world’s second largest Alpine lake, which in turn is vastly large than Lake Tahoe (dark blue), widely viewed as sizable lake. (Lake Tahoe is actually too small to be on the Wikipedia list; as a result I have had to estimate its relative size here.)

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