15 Scary Things About the Great Lakes That Most People Don’t Know

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Stretching across 4,530 miles of coastline and comprising 21 percent of the world’s freshwater, the Great Lakes provide drinking water to over 30 million people. Beyond these remarkable facts, there’s a lesser-known, eerie aspect to these vast lakes that few are aware of.

The Mysterious Lake Michigan Triangle


The Lake Michigan Triangle, stretching between Manitowoc, Wisconsin; Ludington, Michigan; and Benton Harbor, Michigan, has been the site of numerous unexplained disappearances. 

The first known incident involved the lumber ship Thomas Hume, which vanished in 1891 after heading into a storm and was not found until 2006, surprisingly well-preserved. Decades later, the Rouse-Simmons suffered a similar fate, disappearing under mysterious circumstances despite being observed flying a distress flag in clear conditions.

They’re Home to as Many as 20,000 Shipwrecks


The Great Lakes are known to house at least 6,000 shipwrecks, though some estimates suggest there could be as many as 20,000. These lakes, notorious for rapid weather changes, serve as the final resting place for numerous ships. 

Chris Gillcrist, executive director of the National Museum of the Great Lakes, states that these lakes have a higher concentration of shipwrecks per square mile than any other body of water globally.

The Alleged Shark Encounter in Lake Michigan

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In 1955, a surprising incident was recorded involving George Lawson, who reportedly suffered a shark bite in Lake Michigan. 

While the idea of a shark attack in these freshwater lakes might seem far-fetched, the Shark Research Institute acknowledges that the presence of a bull shark, known for its ability to travel far up freshwater rivers, is within the realms of possibility.

Tornadoes Formed by the Lakes

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Lake Michigan has a history of spawning violent and powerful tornadoes. 

In 1956, one such tornado was powerful enough to destroy the Saugatuck Lighthouse in Grand Rapids, Michigan, illustrating the potential meteorological impact of this lake.

They’re Much Bigger Than People Think


The Great Lakes system is a vast network comprising five large lakes — Superior, Michigan, Huron, Erie, and Ontario — along with one smaller lake, four connecting channels, and the St. Lawrence Seaway. 

These lakes collectively contain about 90% of the U.S.’s and approximately 20% of the world’s freshwater supply, serving as a crucial resource for some 40 million people in both the U.S. and Canada.

Piranhas in the Lakes

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Large, vegetarian piranhas, likely released by pet owners, have been found in Michigan’s Great Lakes waters. 

These South American fish are just one example of invasive species challenging local ecosystems and prompting concern among wildlife officials about the ecological balance of the region.

Lake Superior is Known for ‘Rogue Waves’


Lake Superior, the largest of the Great Lakes, is infamous for generating rogue waves, which are significantly larger than others occurring at the same time. 

Researchers at the University of Wisconsin-Madison have verified these exceptional waves on Lake Superior, which have been implicated in historical shipwrecks, including the infamous Edmund Fitzgerald.

Radioactive Risks on the Great Lakes Shores


Over 60,000 tons of highly radioactive spent nuclear fuel are stored very close to the shorelines of four of the five Great Lakes. 

This proximity to major freshwater sources poses significant environmental risks, emphasizing the lakes’ roles in both natural beauty and industrial challenges.

Lake Ontario’s Deadly Cold


Ted Rankine of the Canadian Safe Boating Council highlights the lethal nature of Lake Ontario’s frigid waters. Upon sudden immersion, you experience an involuntary gasp, known as cold-water shock. You have a critical minute to stabilize your breathing, ten minutes of effective movement to attempt self-rescue, and one hour before hypothermia sets in. 

Surprisingly, it is not hypothermia but the immediate immobilization caused by the intense cold that often proves fatal, occurring before the body’s core temperature even reaches dangerously low levels.

Lake Michigan’s Dangerous Currents


Lake Michigan is notorious for its swift and powerful currents, including longshore and rip currents, making it the most dangerous of the Great Lakes. 

These currents can quickly develop due to the lake’s specific geographic features, creating deadly conditions that can drag swimmers far from shore.

Lake Superior’s Astonishing Water Volume


Lake Superior alone has enough water to cover both North and South America with a foot of water, totaling over 3 quadrillion gallons. 

This immense volume highlights the vast scale and deep reserves of fresh water within just one of the Great Lakes.

The ‘Huroncane’: A Rare Cyclone on Lake Huron

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In an extraordinary event in September 1996, a combination of unusually warm lake water and a cold mid-latitude cyclone led to the formation of the “Huroncane,” or “Hurricane Huron.” 

This rare cyclone displayed characteristics similar to typical hurricanes, a phenomenon nearly unheard of for the Great Lakes, which are usually too cold to support such storm systems.

Invasive Blood-Sucking Lampreys in the Lakes


Sea lampreys, having invaded the Great Lakes in the early 20th century through shipping canals, represent a significant ecological threat. 

Originally saltwater creatures, lampreys have adapted to freshwater life in the Great Lakes. As adults, they are notorious for their parasitic feeding habits, attaching themselves to fish, which often results in the death of their host due to loss of blood or infections resulting from too much stress.

Erosive Impact of Climate Change on the Great Lakes


The rising water levels in the Great Lakes, driven by climate change and warmer winters, are significantly eroding beaches and threatening coastal and lakeside communities. 

This erosion is transforming the nation’s third coast, endangering recreational areas and reshaping the regional landscape.

They Were Formed During the Last Ice Age

Illustration. Image credit: Depositphotos

The origin story of the Great Lakes is a testament to the power of nature’s forces. Formed during the last ice age by the Laurentide ice sheet, which was over a mile thick, these lakes were carved out as the massive glacier gouged the earth beneath it. Around 20,000 years ago, as the climate warmed, the retreating glacier filled these newly formed basins with melting ice water, giving rise to the Great Lakes as we know them today. 

These waters, which achieved their present forms about 3,000 years ago, now support a diverse ecosystem comprising more than 3,500 plant and animal species across a variety of habitats including aquatic zones, forests, marshes, wetlands, and dunes.

Kate Smith, a self-proclaimed word nerd who relishes the power of language to inform, entertain, and inspire. Kate's passion for sharing knowledge and sparking meaningful conversations fuels her every word.