Episode 53: The Great Lakes

Welcome to Slow American English, the podcast for learners of American English. I’m your host, Karren Tolliver.

This is episode number 53: The Great Lakes

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The Great Lakes are five very large bodies of water in the upper Midwest area of the USA, north of the Mississippi River basin. We think of them as inland seas and call them the nation’s fourth seacoast. They lie on the border with Canada and measure more than 750 miles from east to west. They touch eight states: Michigan, Wisconsin, Minnesota, Illinois, Indiana, Ohio, Pennsylvania and New York. The Great Lakes, along with their connecting rivers, form the largest fresh surface water system on earth.

The Great Lakes were formed by glaciers thousands of years ago, and they are very deep. They hold about 20% of the world’s fresh surface water supply and 90% of the USA’s. The Great Lakes provide drinking water for about 48 million people. In addition, the lakes are used for transportation, recreation, electricity, fishing and many other economic and ecological functions.

Weather can be very dangerous for ships on the Great Lakes, and there are dangerous reefs, too. Many terrible shipwrecks have happened there. One of the most famous was the wreck of the SS Edmund Fitzgerald in 1975. You may have heard the famous song about it by Gordon Lightfoot.

Because of pollution and other problems, the Great Lakes have been damaged. Now, there are lots of federal programs to help clean and restore them. Canada, 40 Native North American tribes and eight US states take part in the programs.

The lakes’ names are Huron, Ontario, Michigan, Erie and Superior. You can remember the names of the Great Lakes by thinking of the word HOMES. Here is a little information about each one. They are listed in order from west to east:

Lake Superior

Lake Superior is the largest in surface area and water volume. The name comes from the French phrase for “upper lake”, lac supérieur, because it is north of Lake Huron.

Lake Michigan

The name of Lake Michigan comes from the Ojibwa Native American tribe’s word mishigami, meaning “large lake”. Lake Michigan is the third largest Great Lake in surface area. It’s the only one that is located entirely within the US. It is connected to Lake Huron by the Straits of Mackinac. Some people consider Lake Michigan and Lake Huron to be two halves of one larger body of water.

Lake Huron

The name comes from the Huron, or Wyandot, Native Americans, who lived there. It’s the second largest Great Lake with the longest shoreline. Manitoulin Island is located in Lake Huron; it’s the largest island in any inland body of water on Earth.

Lake Erie

The name of Lake Erie was taken from the Iroquoi Native Americans’ word for “long tail” (erielhonan), which describes Lake Erie’s shape. It is the fourth largest Great Lake in surface area, but smallest by water volume.

Lake Ontario

The Native American Huron word for “lake of shining water” is ontario. This is the smallest of the Great Lakes by surface area. Water from Lake Erie flows into Lake Ontario by the Niagara River. Lake Ontario is at the base of the famous Niagara Falls. Water flows out of Lake Ontario by the St. Lawrence River, which leads to the Gulf of St. Lawrence and then into the Atlantic Ocean.

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This has been Slow American English. I’m Karren Tolliver. Thank you for listening.