Big Water, big concerns

Lake Superior: Photo by Mark Ryan
Lake Superior: Photo by Mark Ryan
Lake Superior is the greatest of the Great Lakes, and lately has become the subject of great concern. Superior’s water level has been dropping at an alarming rate in recent years, and is now at an all-time low. Lake Superior sets on the border of the United States and Canada, and people from both countries are trying to get answers. Some blame the drop in level on climate change, due to the decline of ice formation each winter on the lake and the subsequent increased evaporation. I covered this subject in an earlier posting that you can read about here. But others point to a chain reaction of water loss due to erosion and human activity farther down the Great Lakes System where the St. Clair River drains out of Lake Huron. Whatever the reasons, people on both sides of Superior are worried. The Canadian Broadcasting Corporation recently created a documentary titled Who Pulled the Plug on Lake Superior? which details the story. Watch it here.


Having grown up in Duluth, Minnesota on the western tip of Lake Superior, I continue to have a fascination with the great inland sea. The body of water is huge and powerful, and not to be taken lightly in inclement weather, when its mood can change in a matter of minutes. Waves during storms can reach up to 30 feet in height. The lake is the grave to more than 325 shipwrecks.

Here are some more quick facts about Lake Superior:

  • Elevation above sea level: 600 feet (183 m)
  • Maximum Length 350 miles (563 km)
  • Maximum Breadth: 160 miles (257 km)
  • Average Depth: 483 feet (147 m)
  • Maximum Depth 1333 feet (406 m)
  • Average Water Temperature: 40 degrees F.
  • It’s the largest freshwater lake in the world by surface area (31,820 square feet (2956 square meters))
  • It holds more than 2900 cubic miles of water (12,100 cubic km) which is enough to cover all of North and South America with a foot of water
  • The Anishiabe Ojibwe Indians called the lake “Gichigami”, which means “Big Water”.

A statistic I’ve always found interesting is that 3% of the water on Earth is fresh water, and 10% of that fresh water is held in Lake Superior. The total water in the four other Great Lakes match Superior’s volume, and together they equal the volume of water contained in Russia’s Lake Baikal, the largest freshwater lake by volume in the world.

Evidently, I’m not alone in this fascination with Lake Superior. Two conferences about the body of water are taking place in the next few weeks. The first is “Making a Great Lake Superior” (October 29-31, 2007), which will bring together scientists, tribal and government officials to present current research, education programs, and management ideas relating to the lake.

The second conference is the “Gales of November 2007” (November 2-3, 2007). It celebrates the maritime history of the lake, and will present exhibitors and speakers on regional history, shipwrecks, diving, and other lake-related subjects. This will be their 20th annual get-together.

Both conferences are being held at the Duluth Entertainment and Convention Center, in Duluth Minnesota.

Lastly, just for the heck of it, here’s a short video titled TWELVE MOONS ON GICHIGAMI that compresses a year of Lake Superior images into less than seven minutes.


More about Lake Superior
“Making a Great Lake Superior” Conference
“Gales of November 2007” Conference

Your Comments, Thoughts, Questions, Ideas

Anonymous's picture
Anonymous says:

Is it true that almost all of MN was once covered by glaciers?

posted on Wed, 10/17/2007 - 1:49pm
mdr's picture
mdr says:

Yes, it's true. Over the past two million years glaciers advanced and retreated over Minnesota many times. During both the Nebraskan Ice Stage (2,000,000 years ago) and the Kansan Ice Stage (400,000 years ago) most of the state was completely under ice. In subsequent advances, various regions of the state were covered, but not all. The last advance of ice was called the Wisconsin Ice Stage (10,500 years ago), and as it retreated, Lake Superior was formed in it's wake.

posted on Thu, 10/18/2007 - 9:47am
mdr's picture
mdr says:

In the weeks since I posted this story there has been a lot of rain around Lake Superior, and it seems that its water level has pretty much returned back to normal. Next I suppose there will be reports about concerns of rising levels on the Great Lakes. Oh, well.

posted on Wed, 11/07/2007 - 5:23pm
YSC Robby's picture
YSC Robby says:

Here's an interesting article of the same name as your video link.
Who Pulled the Plug on Lake Superior (Minnesota Monthly, Oct. 2007)
I wonder if the "back to normal" levels really are back to historically normal levels. I would guess that they are back to normal for recent history but not for long term history. Anybody have any facts?

posted on Thu, 11/15/2007 - 5:39pm
hawa's picture
hawa says:


posted on Thu, 03/27/2008 - 9:17am

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