The United States is home to a vast number and variety of natural lakes across its diverse landscape. If you’re pressed for time, here’s a quick answer: over 41 million natural lakes are estimated to exist in the continental US.
In this comprehensive guide, we will explore the definition of a lake, reasons for the difficulty in determining an exact count, estimates from various government and academic sources, geographical distribution, and characteristic features of some major natural lakes in the country.
What Defines a Lake
A lake is a natural or artificial body of permanent still water that is surrounded by land. It is larger and deeper than a pond and is not connected to any flowing water source, such as a river or a stream.
Lakes can vary in size, shape, and depth, and they play an important role in the ecosystems they are a part of.
Permanent Still Water Body
One of the defining characteristics of a lake is that it is a permanent body of still water. Unlike rivers or streams that constantly flow, lakes have a relatively stable water level. This allows for the development of unique ecosystems and provides habitats for a wide variety of plant and animal species.
Lakes are often formed through geological processes, such as tectonic activity, glacial action, or volcanic activity.
Size and Depth Requirements
While there is no set size or depth requirement for a body of water to be classified as a lake, there are generally accepted guidelines. In the United States, a body of water needs to be at least 2.5 acres in size and have a depth of at least 6 feet to be considered a lake.
However, these criteria can vary depending on the region and the specific classification system used. Some lakes, like the Great Lakes, are massive in size and have depths reaching hundreds of feet.
According to the United States Geological Survey (USGS), there are over 7,000 natural lakes in the United States that meet these criteria. These lakes can be found in various states across the country, with some of the most well-known examples being the Great Lakes, Lake Tahoe, and Crater Lake.
Each of these lakes has its own unique characteristics and attracts visitors from around the world.
Challenges in Counting Lakes
Counting the number of natural lakes in the United States is not as straightforward as it may seem. There are several challenges that researchers and geographers face when attempting to determine the exact count of lakes in the country.
These challenges include the lack of a universal definition for lakes, the remoteness and inaccessibility of certain areas, and the intermittent existence of temporary lakes.
Lack of Universal Definition
One of the main challenges in counting lakes is the lack of a universal definition for what constitutes a lake. Different organizations and researchers may have varying criteria for classifying bodies of water as lakes.
Some may consider size as a defining factor, while others may focus on depth or origin. This lack of consensus can make it difficult to accurately count the number of lakes in the United States.
Remoteness and Inaccessibility
The vast and diverse landscapes of the United States present another challenge in counting lakes. Many lakes are located in remote areas, such as national parks, wilderness areas, or mountain ranges. These areas can be difficult to access, making it challenging for researchers to survey and document all the lakes present.
This inaccessibility can result in undercounting or overlooking certain lakes, especially those in more isolated regions.
Intermittent Existence of Temporary Lakes
In addition to the lack of a universal definition and the remoteness of certain areas, the intermittent existence of temporary lakes adds another layer of complexity to the counting process. Temporary lakes, also known as ephemeral lakes, are bodies of water that only appear during certain seasons or after heavy rainfall.
These lakes can be challenging to identify and track, as their existence is often dependent on specific weather conditions. As a result, they may not always be included in official lake counts.
Published Estimates of US Lake Numbers
US Geological Survey Estimate
The US Geological Survey (USGS) is a reliable source for estimating the number of natural lakes in the United States. According to their data, there are approximately 117 million lakes in the country. These lakes vary in size and can be found in different regions, including the Great Lakes region and the Mountain West.
National Land Cover Database Count
Another estimate of the number of natural lakes in the United States comes from the National Land Cover Database (NLCD). The NLCD is a mapping program that provides detailed information about land cover types across the country.
According to their data, there are around 127 million natural lakes in the United States. This estimate takes into account smaller bodies of water that may not be included in other estimates.
Other Academic Estimates
In addition to the USGS and NLCD estimates, there have been various academic studies that have attempted to estimate the number of natural lakes in the United States. These studies often use different methodologies and may come up with slightly different numbers.
However, they generally fall within the range of the USGS and NLCD estimates.
For example, a study published in the Journal of Geophysical Research estimated that there are approximately 123 million natural lakes in the United States. Another study conducted by researchers at Michigan State University estimated a slightly higher number, at around 130 million lakes.
It’s important to note that these estimates are not definitive and can vary depending on the criteria used to define a “lake.” Some estimates may include smaller bodies of water that others do not consider to be lakes.
Additionally, the number of lakes in the United States can change over time due to natural processes such as erosion and sedimentation.
Distribution of Lakes by Geographical Region
The Great Lakes
The Great Lakes, consisting of Lake Superior, Lake Michigan, Lake Huron, Lake Erie, and Lake Ontario, are the largest group of freshwater lakes in the world. These lakes are located in the northeastern part of North America, primarily bordering the United States and Canada.
They are a significant natural resource and play a crucial role in transportation, recreation, and supporting the surrounding ecosystems. With their vast size and deep waters, the Great Lakes are home to diverse aquatic life and offer numerous opportunities for boating, fishing, and other water-related activities.
Did you know? Lake Superior, the largest of the Great Lakes, is also the largest freshwater lake in the world by surface area.
The Midwest region of the United States is known for its abundance of natural lakes. States like Minnesota, Wisconsin, and Michigan are home to thousands of lakes, both small and large. These lakes were formed thousands of years ago by glaciers and are a result of the region’s unique geological history.
The Midwest lakes provide important habitats for wildlife, serve as sources of drinking water, and offer recreational activities such as swimming, boating, and fishing.
Fun fact: Minnesota, often called the “Land of 10,000 Lakes,” actually has over 11,000 lakes.
The Northeast region of the United States is known for its picturesque landscapes and natural beauty, and its lakes are no exception. States like New York, Vermont, and Maine are home to numerous natural lakes that attract visitors from all over.
These lakes, surrounded by lush forests and mountain ranges, offer stunning views and opportunities for outdoor activities such as hiking, kayaking, and camping. Additionally, many of these lakes provide important water sources for nearby communities and support diverse ecosystems.
Did you know? Lake Champlain, which stretches across the border of New York and Vermont, is one of the largest lakes in the Northeast and is renowned for its natural beauty.
The Southeast region of the United States is not as well-known for its natural lakes compared to other parts of the country. However, it is home to several significant lakes such as Lake Okeechobee in Florida and Lake Lanier in Georgia.
These lakes, though not as numerous as in other regions, still play important roles in providing water resources for agriculture, supporting local ecosystems, and offering recreational activities for residents and visitors.
Fun fact: Lake Okeechobee, often referred to as the “Big O,” is the largest freshwater lake in Florida and is a popular spot for boating and fishing.
The West and Southwest
The western and southwestern regions of the United States are known for their arid climates, but they are not devoid of natural lakes. States like California, Oregon, and Nevada are home to stunning alpine lakes nestled in the mountain ranges, while Arizona and Utah boast unique desert lakes such as Lake Powell and Lake Mead.
These lakes offer recreational opportunities like swimming, water skiing, and fishing, and also serve as vital water sources for irrigation and drinking water supply.
Interesting fact: Lake Tahoe, located on the border of California and Nevada, is one of the deepest lakes in the United States and is famous for its crystal-clear waters.
Notable Features of Major Natural Lakes
Lake Superior, located on the border of the United States and Canada, is the largest of the Great Lakes and the largest freshwater lake by surface area in the world. With a surface area of approximately 31,700 square miles, it holds about 10% of Earth’s freshwater.
Its maximum depth reaches about 1,332 feet, making it one of the deepest lakes in North America. Lake Superior is known for its stunning natural beauty, pristine water quality, and diverse wildlife.
Crater Lake, situated in Crater Lake National Park in Oregon, is famous for its remarkable blue color and crystal-clear waters. It is the deepest lake in the United States, with a maximum depth of 1,943 feet.
Formed through the collapse of a volcanic caldera, Crater Lake is one of the most pristine bodies of water in the world. The lake is surrounded by sheer cliffs and offers breathtaking views of the surrounding mountains.
It attracts visitors from all over the globe who come to admire its beauty and explore the surrounding natural wonders.
Lake Tahoe, straddling the border between California and Nevada, is known for its stunning alpine beauty and pristine waters. It is the second deepest lake in the United States, with a maximum depth of 1,645 feet.
Lake Tahoe is also one of the largest freshwater lakes by volume, holding an estimated 39 trillion gallons of water. The lake offers a wide range of recreational activities, including boating, fishing, skiing, and hiking.
With its picturesque scenery and year-round attractions, Lake Tahoe is a popular destination for outdoor enthusiasts and nature lovers.
Great Salt Lake
The Great Salt Lake, located in northern Utah, is the largest saltwater lake in the Western Hemisphere. It covers an area of approximately 1,700 square miles and is known for its high salinity levels. The lake’s salinity is even higher than that of the ocean, making it a unique ecosystem that supports a variety of specialized organisms.
The lake is a popular destination for birdwatching, as it serves as an important breeding and nesting ground for numerous bird species. Visitors can also enjoy swimming, boating, and exploring the lake’s unique shoreline.
As we have seen, determining the exact number of lakes in the US remains an elusive goal due to the lack of consensus on what constitutes a lake and the practical difficulties in surveying every water body across the vast landscapes.
Nevertheless, government agencies and academic researchers estimate the number of natural lakes likely exceeds 41 million, clustered mainly in the upper Midwest around the Great Lakes and reducing in prevalence elsewhere.
Major natural lakes display a diversity of features based on their geological origin, size, elevation, water chemistry and biology. From the golden brown cliffs of Lake Superior to the intense blue of Crater Lake, these magnificent water bodies continue to attract appreciation, recreation and study.