The World’s 25 Largest Lakes, Side by Side
The World’s 25 Largest Lakes, Side by Side
In many parts of the world, you don’t have to look very far to find a lake.
According to satellite data, there are roughly 100 million lakes larger than one hectare (2.47 acres) to be found globally. The largest lakes, which rival the size of entire nations, are more of a rarity.
One might expect the world’s largest lakes to be very alike, but from depth to saline content, their properties can be quite different. As well, the ranking of the world’s largest lakes is far from static, as human activity can turn a massive body of water into a desert within a single generation.
Today’s graphic – created using the fantastic online tool, Slap It On A Map! – uses the Great Lakes region as a point of comparison for the largest 25 lakes, by area. This is particularly useful in comparing the scale of lakes that are located in disparate parts of the globe.
The Greatest Lakes
The largest lake in the world by a long shot is the Caspian Sea – a name that hints at a past when it was contiguous with the ocean around 11 million years ago. This massive saline lake, which is nearly the same size as Japan, borders five countries: Kazakhstan, Russia, Turkmenistan, Azerbaijan, and Iran. An estimated 48 billion barrels of oil lay beneath the surface of the basin.
The five Great Lakes, which run along the Canada–U.S. border, form one of the largest collections of fresh water on Earth. This interconnected series of lakes represents around 20% of the world’s fresh water and the region supports over 100 million people, roughly equal to one-third of the Canada–U.S. population.
Amazingly, a single lake holds as much fresh water as all the Great Lakes combined – Lake Baikal. This rift lake in Siberia has a maximum depth of 5,371ft (1,637m). For comparison, the largest of the Great Lakes (Lake Superior) is only 25% as deep, with a maximum depth of 1,333ft (406m). Lake Baikal is unique in a number of other ways too. It is the world’s oldest, coldest lake, and around 80% of its animal species are endemic (not found anywhere else).
Here’s a full run-down of the top 25 lakes by area:
|Rank||Lake Name||Surface Area||Type||Countries on shoreline|
|1||Caspian Sea||143,000 sq mi|
|2||Superior||31,700 sq mi|
|3||Victoria||26,590 sq mi|
|4||Huron||23,000 sq mi|
|5||Michigan||22,000 sq mi|
|6||Tanganyika||12,600 sq mi|
|7||Baikal||12,200 sq mi|
|8||Great Bear Lake||12,000 sq mi|
|9||Malawi||11,400 sq mi|
|10||Great Slave Lake||10,000 sq mi|
|11||Erie||9,900 sq mi|
|12||Winnipeg||9,465 sq mi|
|13||Ontario||7,320 sq mi|
|14||Ladoga||7,000 sq mi|
|15||Balkhash||6,300 sq mi|
|16||Vostok||4,800 sq mi|
|17||Onega||3,700 sq mi|
|18||Titicaca||3,232 sq mi|
|19||Nicaragua||3,191 sq mi|
|20||Athabasca||3,030 sq mi|
|21||Taymyr||2,700 sq mi|
|22||Turkana||2,473 sq mi|
|23||Reindeer Lake||2,440 sq mi|
|24||Issyk-Kul||2,400 sq mi|
|25||Urmia||2,317 sq mi|
The Great Lakes World Tour
For people living in Canada and the U.S., the shape and relative size of the Great Lakes system may be quite familiar. This makes the Great Lakes a fantastic point of comparison to help put the size of other world locations into perspective. To this end, we begin our Great Lakes World Tour.
First, the image below shows how the Great Lakes system would look if it was located in India.
Distortions on commonly used maps can downplay the size of India compared to more northern nations. This view of the Great Lakes can help put India’s true size into perspective.
Next, we look at the Great Lakes overlaid within Central Europe.
In the context of Europe, the lakes are so large that they extend from the Netherlands over to Slovakia. Lake Superior’s surface area of 31,700 mi2 (82,000 km2), is similar in size to Austria. Here’s are the five Great Lakes and European countries of equivalent size:
|Great Lakes||Surface Area||Equivalent Country||Area|
|Lake Superior||82,000 km2 (31,700 sq mi)||🇦🇹 Austria||83,879 km2 (32,386 sq mi)|
|Lake Huron||60,000 km2 (23,000 sq mi)||🇱🇻 Latvia||64,589 km2 (24,938 sq mi)|
|Lake Michigan||58,000 km2 (22,300 sq mi)||🇭🇷 Croatia||56,594 km2 (21,851 sq mi)|
|Lake Erie||25,700 km2 (9,910 sq mi)||🇲🇰 North Macedonia||25,713 km2 (9,928 sq mi)|
|Lake Ontario||19,000 km2 (7,340 sq mi)||🇸🇮 Slovenia||20,271 km2 (7,827 sq mi)|
Lastly, here is a look at the Great Lakes in Southern Australia. Australia is the world’s 6th largest country, so the Great Lakes only occupy one corner of its land mass.
Australia’s lack of glacial history means that there are few permanent freshwater lakes in the country. Many of the country’s largest lakes only fill up during periods of excessive rainfall.
Shrinking out of the rankings
Not far from the world’s largest lake, straddling the border between Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan, lay the sand dunes of the Aralkum Desert. In the not so distant past, this harsh environment was actually the bed of one of the largest lakes in the world – the Aral Sea.
For reasons both climatic and anthropogenic, the Aral Sea began receding in the 1960s. This dramatic change in surface area took the Aral Sea from the fourth largest lake on Earth to not even ranking in the top 50. Researchers note that the size of the lake has fluctuated a lot over history, but through the lens of modern history these recent changes happened rapidly, leaving local economies devastated and former shoreside towns landlocked.
Lake Chad, in Saharan Africa, and Lake Urmia, in Iran, both face similar challenges, shrinking dramatically in recent decades.
How we work to reverse damage and avoid ecosystem collapse in vulnerable lakes will have a big influence on how the top 25 list may look in future years.
Map: Oil and Gas Spills in the U.S. Since 2010
Oil and gas spills can be messy, but where are they most likely to occur? This graphic looks at oil and gas spills in the U.S. since 2010.
Mapped: Oil and Gas Spills in the U.S. Since 2010
The recent energy crisis has highlighted the integral role that hydrocarbons play in fueling the modern world, but these fossil fuels still come with their fair share of downsides.
Aside from the obvious climate impact they bring, one other downside in particular is spills, which can lead to ecological and economic damage. These can happen due to pipeline leaks, train derailments, or other industrial disasters.
This graphic from Preyash Shah provides a visual overview of every oil and gas spill in the contiguous U.S. since 2010. Data is tracked by the U.S. government’s Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA).
U.S. Oil and Gas Spills (2010‒2022)
The majority of spills that have occurred come mostly from crude oil, followed by petroleum products and gas. Note that this data covers the quantity of spills and not damages or volume.
|Spills by Product Type||Portion of all U.S. Spills|
|Highly volatile liquids & flammable gas||16%|
|Liquefied petroleum gas / natural gas liquids||8%|
|Other highly volatile liquids||6%|
Crude oil, which makes up just over half of documented spills, is also one of the most costly. Contaminations can persist for years after a spill, and its impact on local mammals and waterfowl is particularly harsh.
This has been the case with the Deepwater Horizon spill (also known as the “BP oil spill”), which experts say is still causing harm in the Gulf of Mexico.
Other products with lots of spills include petroleum products such as diesel or gasoline, as well as liquefied natural gas or other volatile liquids. Interestingly, liquefied carbon dioxide can also be transported in pipelines, commonly used for carbon capture storage, but requires high pressure to maintain its state.
When looking at the location of spills, it’s clear that the South Central states have experienced the highest number of disasters. In contrast, the West Coast has had substantially less activity. However, this makes much more sense when looking at the dominant oil producing states, where Texas and surrounding neighbors reign supreme.
|Rank||State||Oil & Gas Spills (2010-2022)|
Of the 4,901 spills during this period, Texas accounts for 1,936 or roughly 40% of all oil and gas spills. This is followed by Oklahoma, which has had 407 spills and is one of the largest net exporters of oil and gas in the country.
What Causes Spills?
Oil and gas spills actually have a surprisingly long history, with one of the earliest dating back to 1889, when a spill was reported on the coast between Los Angeles and San Diego.
Causes have consisted primarily of weather, natural disasters, equipment and technological malfunction, as well as human error.
However, they only became a widespread problem around the halfway mark of the 20th century, when petroleum extraction and production really began to take off. This era also saw the emergence of supertankers, which can transport half a million tons of oil but therefore make the risk of spills even costlier.
In fact, the biggest spill off U.S. waters after the Deepwater Horizon disaster is the 1989 Exxon Valdez spill in Alaska, when a tanker crashed into a reef and 11 million gallons of oil spilled into the Pacific Ocean.
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