America’s North Coast: The Great Great Lakes!

The Great Lakes of North America span 7°30’ of latitude and nearly 16° of longitude, reaching more than 1200 km E-W and 724 km N-S. These vast freshwater seas form the north coast of the United States, with more than 16,000 km (10,000 miles) of shoreline, roughly the same as the Atlantic coast. The figure below compares the extent of the freshwater seas with important marine coastal areas.

Maps of Chesapeake Bay, Albebarie-Pamlico Sound, and Puget Sound dwarfed by overlaid map of Great Lakes

The Lakes drain over 247,000 square km of watershed and hold 20% of the world’s supply of fresh surface water. They are also a magnet for people. The eight Great Lakes states are home to 82 million US citizens, more than 1/4 of the population, of which more than 13 million are K-12 students.

The Great Lakes inland seas exhibit Earth systems interactions, scientific research, and cultural significance equivalent to those of the “salty” coastlines. For the two countries, 19 federally-recognized tribes, eight U.S. states, and two Canadian provinces that touch the Lakes, they represent a mighty but fragile ecosystem that supports the region’s way of life but also feels its impact . Together the Lakes have been a microcosm of environmental change over the decades of human development; individually they reflect today’s marine issues in a nearly closed basin.

Marine Focus — Great Lakes Response

For these reasons and many others, the Ocean Blueprint for the 21st Century (U.S. Ocean Commission, 2004) treats the Great Lakes along with the oceans and coasts as the subject of science, education and policy recommendations for Federal action. Especially important to our proposed efforts is the vision for the future, in which “an effective team of educators works closely with scientists to learn and teach about the ocean—its value, beauty, and critical role on the planet. And, as a result of lifelong education, all citizens are better stewards of the nation’s resources and marine environment” (p. xxxiv).

The five Great Lakes, while combined to form a single ecoregion, are themselves unique. COSEE Great Lakes is committed to conveying the collective body of science relevant to the system while capitalizing on the distinctions of individual lakes. At the same time, we will compare and contrast the science and issues of the lakes with equivalent traits of the world ocean. Our goals are not only for enhancement of marine education in our freshwater region, but also for sharing the inspiration and vital contributions of the Great Lakes to enhance marine education nationally.