Great Lakes Region

NOAA Great Lakes Region

Sunset on Lake Superior. October 2011. Credit: J. Cavaletto, NOAA.

The Great Lakes hold monumental environmental, cultural, and economic value for both the region and the nation.  Nicknamed the “Third Coast,” the five Great Lakes possess 95 percent of the country’s surface fresh water supply.[1]

Viewed as a source of great pride among those who live in the region, the Great Lakes are a draw to large populations of both Americans and Canadians.  Today, the Great Lakes Basin boasts an impressive 158 counties and 13 major urban areas; about 27.3 million Americans call the region home.[2]

NOAA is committed to providing critical tools and information to research, manage, and protect this vital resource.  The Great Lakes Region spans Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, Minnesota, Ohio, and Wisconsin.  Coverage of New York and Pennsylvania is shared between NOAA’s Great Lakes and North Atlantic Regions.

Geography and Environment

From their westernmost tip (Duluth, Minnesota) to easternmost point (Watertown, New York), the Great Lakes stretch about one thousand miles across the United States and Canada.[3]  The shoreline totals 9,000 miles—longer than the U.S. East and Gulf coasts combined.[4]

In combination, the Great Lakes have a surface area of 94,000 square miles (244,000 square kilometers).  Their water volume, 6 quadrillion gallons (22.7 quadrillion liters), is enough to submerge the continental United States in nearly 10 feet of water.[5]  This gives the Great Lakes the distinction of being the earth’s largest single supply of surface fresh water.

The Great Lakes also constitute the largest freshwater ecosystem in the world.[6]  The basin is home to 3,500 species of plants and animals, including Canada Lynx, Gray Wolves, and Bald Eagles, and over 170 species of fish.[7]  These flora and fauna not only contribute to the environmental integrity, resilience, and character of the region; they also support impressive Great Lakes tourism and recreation industries.

Economic and Recreational Value

The Great Lakes have long been an economic driver for the nation, and NOAA is committed to ensuring that this status continues well into the future.  A recent analysis found that more than 1.5 million jobs are directly connected to the Great Lakes, generating $62 billion in annual wages.[8]  Although the Midwest has suffered economic hardships, thanks to the Great Lakes, the region still generated 27% of the gross domestic product and 24% of country’s exports in 2009.[9]

Sleeping Bear Dunes, North Bar Lake. Lake Michigan. Credit: K. McConnelly.

The manufacturing industry remains a major source of employment and revenue in the region, but so, too, do recreation and tourism.  Residents and tourists alike spend nearly $16 billion annually on boating trips and equipment in the Great Lakes, and the region draws an impressive 37 million anglers, hunters, and bird watchers each year.[10]  The magnificence of our natural resources recently gained a boost when Michigan’s Sleeping Bear Dunes National Seashore received the proud distinction as the “Most Beautiful Place in America.”[11]


The Great Lakes’ beauty and ecological diversity belie their vulnerability to biological and chemical stresses.  In reality, years of degradation from toxic contamination, destruction of coastal wetlands, nonpoint source pollution, and invasive species have left the ecosystem at a tipping point.

Today, the United States portion of the Great Lakes includes 26 Areas of Concern (AOCs), places suffering extreme environmental degradation.  An additional five AOCs are located on the United States-Canadian border.

Non-native and invasive flora and fauna have further damaged ecosystem health.  Sea lamprey, zebra mussels, and quagga mussels are among the most well-known invasive species to date.  We also face the continued threat of Asian Carp.

A changing climate also presents challenges for the Great Lakes ecosystem and residents.  Higher global temperatures have changed patterns of seasons and precipitation at regional and local levels.  Long-term studies conducted by NOAA show diminishing duration and thickness of ice cover each winter, and a decrease in lake water levels since 1980.  These changes affect Great Lakes ecology, to be sure, but the consequences also impact the viability of certain industries and the well-being of coastal communities.

A Promising Future

Muskegon Lake Area of Concern restoration project. Credit: NOAA.

Fortunately, we know many of the solutions to the threats and challenges facing the Great Lakes ecosystem, and NOAA is working to provide the information, services, and on-the-ground action needed to achieve them.

The Great Lakes Restoration Initiative (GLRI), begun in 2010, has provided a large infusion of funding for sustainable Great Lakes restoration.  NOAA is fortunate to be working with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and 15 additional federal agencies to fund projects that restore the Great Lakes.  Target areas include:

  • cleaning up Great Lakes Areas of Concern (AOCs)
  • preventing and controlling invasive species
  • reducing nutrient runoff that contributes to harmful/nuisance algal blooms
  • restoring habitat to protect native species
  • science-based adaptive management

NOAA’s GLRI projects have already yielded tangible successes and distinct progress in ameliorating some of the most pronounced threats to the Great Lakes and region.  For more information and details, please visit NOAA’s GLRI website.


[11] ABC News

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