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Learn About our Great Lakes

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Environment, Great Lakes, and Energy

Learn About our Great Lakes

The Great Lakes are known for their beauty and the wealth of resources within and around them. The combined lakes contain the largest supply of fresh water on earth; 20% or one fifth of the Earth's total fresh water, with more than 3,000 miles of shoreline, the Great Lakes not only form Michigan's geography, but also shape our economy, society, and environment. EGLE protects, preserves, and restores the Great Lakes through regulatory oversight with programs that range from the permitting of shore protection structures and dredging projects to the issuance of Great Lakes Bottomland Conveyances.

The Great Lakes basin is a 295,200-square-mile area within which all surface area drains into the Great Lakes.  It includes parts of Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, Minnesota, New York, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, Ontario and Quebec. All together, the Great Lakes contain the 9,402 miles of shoreline and 94,710 total square miles of surface area (about the size of Texas).  

To remember the Great Lakes names, remember the word "HOMES"

H = Huron
O = Ontario
M = Michigan
E = Erie
S = Superior

Public beach at Saugatuck

Beach Advisories

Get information on Michigan beach water quality sampling results and beach advisories and closures. 

Great Lakes Coordination - Lake Michigan - Sleeping Bear Dunes Scenic

Dunes

Most Great Lakes dunes were formed about 4000-6000 years ago, during very high water. They are found along all of the Great Lakes and are the largest freshwater dune ecosystem in the world.
See how we protect our freshwater dunes
Thunder Bay Shipwreck Image

Michigan Shipwrecks

An estimated 6,000 vessels have been lost on the Great Lakes with approximately 1,500 of these ships located in Michigan waters.

Docks along a lakeshore, collapsing from high water erosion

Water Levels

Water levels on the Great Lakes are cyclical with periods of low and high water, with each period lasting for several years depending on the amount of precipitation, runoff, and evaporation that occurs.

Great Lakes shorelines include bluffs, floodplains, coastal wetlands, sand dunes, and development, and the type of shoreline determines how high water levels will impact property.

Get more info about high water levels

Frequently Asked Questions

  • With more than 3,000 miles of shoreline in Michigan, the Great Lakes waves shape our sandy beaches and rocky shorelines. The shallow bays and coastal wetlands provide habitat for wildlife and fish. Sand dunes tower over the shores. The shorelines are a recreational destination for property owners and tourists, and shoreline communities enjoy the economic base provided by their local Great Lake.

    Beach walking is a popular pastime for residents and visitors. Walking is a legal activity along the Great Lakes shoreline regardless of who owns the property, but walkers cannot linger on another person's shoreline property without their permission.

    Lingering includes sunbathing, camping, building fire pits, and other similar activities. 

  • Some activities, like building a new garage, require a permit only if you live in a Critical Dune Area, while some activities, like building an addition to your home, require a permit regardless of which area you live in. High-Risk Erosion Areas have less activities requiring a permit than Critical Dune Areas.

    We offer information to help identify if a permit is needed including:

  • Our Coastal Management Program provides technical assistance and strategic grant funding to assist in coastal communities’ ability to understand risks and options to mitigate coastal hazards; create healthy habitats that provide for human use and enjoyment; support coastal eco-tourism opportunities while ensuring for safe public access; and support resilient and sustainable coastal economies.

    Shoreland Protection and Management or Part 323 of the Natural Resources and Environmental Protection Act, 1994 Public Act 451, as amended is the key state statute providing consumer protection from the natural hazards of coastal erosion and flooding  as well as environmental protection of our fragile coastal areas.  It is closely integrated with Part 325 the Great Lakes Submerged Lands, and Part 353 Sand Dunes Management.

Fast facts about each of the Great Lakes

A map of the Great Lakes. Lake Huron is highlighted bright blue, while the other 4 lakes are a pale blue.

Lake Huron

Since its French discoverers knew nothing as yet of the other lakes, they called it La Mer Douce, the sweet or fresh-water sea.  A Sanson map in 1656 refers to it as Karegnondi.

Huron is the second largest Great Lake (although Lake Huron-Michigan, at 45,300 mi2 / 117,400 km2 is technically the world's largest freshwater lake.  This is because what have traditionally been called Lake Huron and Lake Michigan are really giant lobes of a single lake connected by the five mile wide Strait of Mackinac.) It has the longest shoreline of the Great Lakes, counting its 30,000 islands.

  • Surface Area: 22,973 mi2 / 59,500 km2
  • Volume: 850 mi3 / 3,540 km3
  • Length: 206 mi / 331 km
  • Depth: 194 ft / 59 m average; 748 ft / 229 m maximum
  • Shoreline Length: 3,827 miles / 6,157 km (including islands)
  • Elevation: 581 ft / 177 m
  • Outlet: St. Clair River to Lake Erie
  • Retention/Replacement Time: 22 years
A map of the Great Lakes. Lake Ontario is highlighted bright blue, while the other 4 lakes are a pale blue.

Lake Ontario

Champlain first called it Lake St. Louis in 1632.  On a Sanson map in 1656, it remained Lac de St. Louis.  In 1660, Creuxius gave it the name Lacus Ontarius.  Ontara in Iroquois means "lake," and Ontario, "beautiful lake."

Ontario is the smallest in surface area of the Great Lakes.

  • Surface Area: 7,340 mi2 / 18,960 km2
  • Volume: 393 mi3 / 1,640 km3
  • Length: 193 mi / 311 km
  • Depth: 282 ft / 86 m average; 804 ft / 245 m maximum
  • Shoreline Length: 726 miles / 1,168 km (including islands)
  • Elevation: 246 ft / 75 m
  • Outlet: St. Lawrence River to the Atlantic Ocean
  • Retention/Replacement Time: 6 years
A map of the Great Lakes. Lake Michigan is highlighted bright blue, while the other 4 lakes are a pale blue.

Lake Michigan

Champlain called it the Grand Lac.  It was later named "Lake of the Stinking Water" or "Lake of the Puants," after the people of other nations who occupied its shores.  In 1679, the lake became known as Lac des Illinois, because it gave access to the country of the Indians of that name.  Allouez called it Lac St. Joseph, by which name it was often designated by early writers.  Others called it Lac Dauphine.  Through the further explorations of Jolliet and Marquette, it received its final name of Michigan, Algonquian for "Great Water."

Michigan is the third largest Great Lake (although Lake Huron-Michigan, at 45,300 mi2 / 117,400 km2 is technically the world's largest freshwater lake.  This is because what have traditionally been called Lake Huron and Lake Michigan are really giant lobes of a single lake connected by the five mile wide Strait of Mackinac.)

  • Surface Area: 22,278 mi2 / 57,750 km2                                                           
  • Volume: 1,180 mi3 / 4,920 km3
  • Length: 307 mi / 494 km
  • Depth: 279 ft / 85 m average; 925 ft / 282 m maximum
  • Shoreline Length: 1,659 miles / 2,670 km (including islands)
  • Elevation: 581 ft / 177 m
  • Outlet: Straits of Mackinac to Lake Huron
  • Retention/Replacement Time: 99 years
A map of the Great Lakes. Lake Erie is highlighted bright blue, while the other 4 lakes are a pale blue.

Lake Erie

The greater part of its southern shore was at one time occupied by the Eries, a tribe of Indians from which the lake derived its name.  This name is always mentioned by the early French writers as meaning "cat"; Lac du Chat means "Lake of the Cat."  Many attribute this reference to the wild cat or panther.

Lake Erie is the fourth largest Great Lake and is the shallowest and warmest.

  • Surface Area: 9,906 mi2 / 25,657 km2
  • Volume: 116 mi3 / 483 km3
  • Length: 210 mi / 338 km
  • Depth: 62 ft / 19 m average; 210 ft / 64 m maximum
  • Shoreline Length: 871 miles / 1,400 km (including islands)
  • Elevation: 571 ft / 174 m
  • Outlet: Niagara River and Welland Canal
  • Retention/Replacement Time: 2.6 years (shortest of the Great Lakes)
A map of the Great Lakes. Lake Superior is bright blue, and the 4 other lakes are pale blue.

Lake Superior

"Uppermost Lake" (French); Kitchi-gummi, a Chippewa Indian translation, signifies "Great Water," or "Great Lake."  A Jesuit name, "Lac Tracy," was never officially adopted.

Superior is the largest of the Great Lakes by surface area and volume, and rich in natural resources.

  • Surface Area: 31,700 mi2 / 82,100 km2 
  • Volume: 2,934 mi3 / 12,230 km3
  • Length: 350 mi / 563 km
  • Depth: 489 ft / 149 m average; 1,335 ft / 407 m maximum
  • Shoreline Length: 2,726 miles / 4,385 km (including islands)
  • Elevation: 600 ft / 183 m
  • Outlet: St. Marys River to Lake Huron
  • Retention/Replacement Time: 191 years