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A lake (from Latin laus) is a terrain feature (or physical feature), a body of liquid on the surface of a world that is localized to the bottom of basin (another type of landform or terrain feature; that is, it is not global) and moves slowly if it moves at all. Another definition is, a body of fresh or salt water of considerable size that is surrounded by land. On Earth, a body of water is considered a lake when it is inland, not part of the ocean, is larger and deeper than a pond, and is fed by a river. The only world other than Earth known to harbor lakes is Titan, Saturn's largest moon, which has lakes of ethane, most likely mixed with methane. It is not known if Titan's lakes are fed by rivers, though Titan's surface is carved by numerous river beds.

Natural lakes on Earth are generally found in mountainous areas, rift zones, and areas with ongoing or recent glaciation. Other lakes are found in endorheic basins or along the courses of mature rivers. In some parts of the world, there are many lakes because of chaotic drainage patterns left over from the last Ice Age. All lakes are temporary over geologic time scales, as they will slowly fill in with sediments or spill out of the basin containing them.

Meaning and usage of "lake"

There is considerable uncertainty about defining the difference between lakes and ponds, and no current internationally accepted definition of either term across scientific disciplines or political boundaries. For example, limnologists have defined lakes as waterbodies which are simply a larger version of a pond or which have wave action on the shoreline, or where wind induced turbulence plays a major role in mixing the water column. None of these definitions completely excludes ponds and all are difficult to measure. For this reason there has been increasing use made of simple size-based definitions to separate ponds and lakes. One definition of "lake" is a body of water of or more in area, however others have defined lakes as waterbodies of and above, or and above (see also the definition of "pond"). Charles Elton, one of the founders of ecology, regarded lakes as waterbodies of or more. The term "lake" is also used to describe a feature such as Lake Eyremarker, which is a dry basin most of the time but may become filled under seasonal conditions of heavy rainfall. In common usage, many lakes bear names ending with the word "pond", and a lesser number of names ending with "lake" are in quasi-technical fact, ponds.

In lake ecology the environment of a lake is referred to as lacustrine. Large lakes are occasionally referred to as "inland seas", and small seas are occasionally referred to as the name, as in Green Lakemarker, while larger lakes often invert the word order, as in Lake Ontariomarker, at least in North America.

Only one lake in the English Lake Districtmarker is actually called a lake; other than Bassenthwaite Lakemarker, the others are all "meres" or "waters". Only six bodies of water in Scotlandmarker are known as lakes (the others are lochs): the Lake of Menteithmarker, the Lake of the Hirselmarker, Pressmennan Lakemarker, Cally Lake near Gatehouse of Fleetmarker, the saltwater Manxman's Lake at Kirkcudbrightmarker Bay, and The Lake at Fochabers. Of these only the Lake of Menteith and Cally Lake are natural bodies of fresh water.

Distribution of lakes

The majority of lakes on Earth are fresh water, and most lie in the Northern Hemispheremarker at higher latitudes. More than 60% of the world's lakes are in Canadamarker; this is because of the deranged drainage system that dominates the country.

Finlandmarker is known as The Land of the Thousand Lakes, (actually there are 187,888 lakes in Finland, of which 60,000 are large), and the U.S.marker state of Minnesotamarker is known as The Land of Ten Thousand Lakes. The license plates of the Canadianmarker province of Manitobamarker used to claim "100,000 lakes" as one-upmanship on Minnesotamarker, whose license plates boast of its "10,000 lakes."

Most lakes have a natural outflow in the form of a river or stream, but some do not and lose water solely by evaporation or underground seepage or both. They are termed endorheic lakes (see below).

Many lakes are artificial and are constructed for hydro-electric power generation, recreational purposes, industrial use, agricultural use, or domestic water supply.

Evidence of extraterrestrial lakes exists; "definitive evidence of lakes filled with methane" was announced by NASA as returned by the Cassini Probe observing the moon Titan, which orbits the planet Saturn.

Globally, lakes are greatly outnumbered by ponds: of an estimated 304 million standing water bodies worldwide, 91% are or less in area (see definition of ponds) . Small lakes are also much more numerous than big lakes: in terms of area, one third of the world's standing water is represented by lakes and ponds of or less. However, large lakes contribute disproportionately to the area of standing water with 122 large lakes of 1,000 square kilometres (390 sq mi, 100,000 ha, 247,000 acres) or more representing about 29% of the total global area of standing inland water.

Origin of natural lakes

There are a number of natural processes that can form lakes. A recent tectonic uplift of a mountain range can create bowl-shaped depressions that accumulate water and form lakes. The advance and retreat of glaciers can scrape depressions in the surface where water accumulates; such lakes are common in Scandinavia, Patagonia, Siberiamarker, and Canadamarker. The most notables examples are probably the Great Lakesmarker of North America.

Lakes can also form by means of landslides or by glacial blockages. An example of the latter occurred during the last ice age in the U.S. state of Washingtonmarker, when a huge lake formed behind a glacial flow; when the ice retreated, the result was an immense flood that created the Dry Fallsmarker at Sun Lakesmarker, Washingtonmarker.

Salt lake (also called saline lakes) can form where there is no natural outlet or where the water evaporates rapidly and the drainage surface of the water table has a higher-than-normal salt content. Examples of salt lakes include Great Salt Lakemarker, the Aral Seamarker, and the Dead Seamarker.

Small, crescent-shaped lakes called oxbow lakes can form in river valleys as a result of meandering. The slow-moving river forms a sinuous shape as the outer side of bends are eroded away more rapidly than the inner side. Eventually a horseshoe bend is formed and the river cuts through the narrow neck. This new passage then forms the main passage for the river and the ends of the bend become silted up, thus forming a bow-shaped lake.

Crater lakes are formed in volcanic craters and calderas which fill up with precipitation more rapidly than they empty via evaporation. Sometimes the latter are called caldera lakes, although often no distinction is made. An example is Crater Lakemarker in Oregonmarker, located within the caldera of Mount Mazamamarker. The caldera was created in a massive volcanic eruption that led to the subsidence of Mount Mazama around 4860 BC.

Gloe Lakes are freshwater lakes that have emerged when the water they consists of has been separated, not considerably long before, from the sea, as a consequence of post-glacial rebound.

Some lakes, such as Lake Jacksonmarker in Florida, USA, come into existence as a result of sinkhole activity.

Lake Vostokmarker is a subglacial lake in Antarcticamarker, possibly the largest in the world. The pressure from the ice atop it and its internal chemical composition mean that, if the lake were drilled into, a fissure could result that would spray somewhat like a geyser.

Most lakes are geologically young and shrinking since the natural results of erosion will tend to wear away the sides and fill the basin. Exceptions are those such as Lake Baikalmarker and Lake Tanganyikamarker that lie along continental rift zones and are created by the crust's subsidence as two plates are pulled apart. These lakes are the oldest and deepest in the world. Lake Baikalmarker, which is 25-30 million years old, is deepening at a faster rate than it is being filled by erosion and may be destined over millions of years to become attached to the global ocean. The Red Seamarker, for example, is thought to have originated as a rift valley lake.

Types of lakes

  • Periglacial lake: Part of the lake's margin is formed by an ice sheet, ice cap, or glacier, the ice having obstructed the natural drainage of the land.
  • Subglacial lake: A lake which is permanently covered by ice. They can occur under glaciers, ice caps, or ice sheets. There are many such lakes, but Lake Vostokmarker in Antarcticamarker is by far the largest. They are kept liquid because the overlying ice acts as a thermal insulator retaining energy introduced to its underside by friction, by water percolating through crevasses, by the pressure from the mass of the ice sheet above, or by geothermal heating below.
  • Glacial lake: a lake with origins in a melted glacier.
  • Artificial lake: A lake created by flooding land behind a dam, called an impoundment or reservoir; by deliberate human excavation; or by the flooding of an excavation incident to a mineral-extraction operation such as an open pit mine or quarry. Some of the world's largest lakes are reservoirs.
  • Endorheic lake, terminal or closed: A lake which has no significant outflow, either through rivers or underground diffusion. Any water within an endorheic basin leaves the system only through evaporation or seepage. These lakes, such as Lake Eyremarker in central Australia or the Aral Seamarker in central Asia, are most common in desert locations.
  • Meromictic lake: A lake which has layers of water which do not intermix. The deepest layer of water in such a lake does not contain any dissolved oxygen. The layers of sediment at the bottom of a meromictic lake remain relatively undisturbed because there are no living aerobic organisms.
  • Fjord lake: A lake in a glacially eroded valley that has been eroded below sea level.
  • Oxbow lake: A lake which is formed when a wide meander from a stream or a river is cut off to form a lake. They are called "oxbow" lakes due to the distinctive curved shape that results from this process.
  • Rift lake or sag pond: A lake which forms as a result of subsidence along a geological fault in the Earth's tectonic plates. Examples include the Rift Valley lakes of eastern Africa and Lake Baikalmarker in Siberiamarker.
  • Underground lake: A lake which is formed under the surface of the Earth's crust. Such a lake may be associated with caves, aquifers, or spring.
  • Crater lake: A lake which forms in a volcanic caldera or crater after the volcano has been inactive for some time. Water in this type of lake may be fresh or highly acidic and may contain various dissolved mineral. Some also have geothermal activity, especially if the volcano is merely dormant rather than extinct.
  • Lava lake: A pool of molten lava contained in a volcanic crater or other depression. Lava lakes that have partly or completely solidified are also referred to as lava lakes.
  • Former: A lake which is no longer in existence. Such lakes include prehistoric lakes and lakes which have permanently dried up through evaporation or human intervention. Owens Lakemarker in Californiamarker, USA, is an example of a former lake. Former lakes are a common feature of the Basin and Range area of southwestern North America.
  • Ephemeral lake: A seasonal lake that exists as a body of water during only part of the year.
  • Intermittent lake: A lake with no water during a part of the year.
  • Shrunken: Closely related to former lakes, a shrunken lake is one which has drastically decreased in size over geological time. Lake Agassizmarker, which once covered much of central North America, is a good example of a shrunken lake. Two notable remnants of this lake are Lake Winnipegmarker and Lake Winnipegosismarker.
  • Eolic lake: A lake which forms in a depression created by the activity of the winds.
  • Vlei, in South Africa, shallow lakes which vary considerably with seasons


Lakes have numerous features in addition to lake type, such as drainage basin (also known as catchment area), inflow and outflow, nutrient content, dissolved oxygen, pollutants, pH, and sedimentation.

Changes in the level of a lake are controlled by the difference between the input and output compared to the total volume of the lake. Significant input sources are precipitation onto the lake, runoff carried by streams and channels from the lake's catchment area, groundwater channels and aquifers, and artificial sources from outside the catchment area. Output sources are evaporation from the lake, surface and groundwater flows, and any extraction of lake water by humans. As climate conditions and human water requirements vary, these will create fluctuations in the lake level.

Lakes can be also categorized on the basis of their richness in nutrients, which typically affects plant growth. Nutrient-poor lakes are said to be oligotrophic and are generally clear, having a low concentration of plant life. Mesotrophic lakes have good clarity and an average level of nutrients. Eutrophic lakes are enriched with nutrients, resulting in good plant growth and possible algal blooms. Hypertrophic lakes are bodies of water that have been excessively enriched with nutrients. These lakes typically have poor clarity and are subject to devastating algal blooms. Lakes typically reach this condition due to human activities, such as heavy use of fertilizers in the lake catchment area. Such lakes are of little use to humans and have a poor ecosystem due to decreased dissolved oxygen.

Due to the unusual relationship between water's temperature and its density, lakes form layers called thermoclines, layers of drastically varying temperature relative to depth. Fresh water is most dense at about 4 degrees Celsius (39.2 °F) at sea level. When the temperature of the water at the surface of a lake reaches the same temperature as deeper water, as it does during the cooler months in temperate climates, the water in the lake can mix, bringing oxygen-starved water up from the depths and bringing oxygen down to decomposing sediments. Deep temperate lakes can maintain a reservoir of cold water year-round, which allows some cities to tap that reservoir for deep lake water cooling.

Since the surface water of deep tropical lakes never reaches the temperature of maximum density, there is no process that makes the water mix. The deeper layer becomes oxygen starved and can become saturated with carbon dioxide, or other gases such as sulfur dioxide if there is even a trace of volcanic activity. Exceptional events, such as earthquakes or landslides, can cause mixing, which rapidly brings up the deep layers and can release a vast cloud of toxic gases which lay trapped in solution in the colder water at the bottom of the lake. This is called a limnic eruption. An example of such a release is the disaster at Lake Nyos in Cameroonmarker. The amount of gas that can be dissolved in water is directly related to pressure. As the previously deep water surfaces, the pressure drops, and a vast amount of gas comes out of solution. Under these circumstances even carbon dioxide is toxic because it is heavier than air and displaces it, so it may flow down a river valley to human settlements and cause mass asphyxiation.

The material at the bottom of a lake, or lake bed, may be composed of a wide variety of inorganics, such as silt or sand, and organic material, such as decaying plant or animal matter. The composition of the lake bed has a significant impact on the flora and fauna found within the lake's environs by contributing to the amounts and the types of nutrients available.

A paired (black and white) layer of the varved lake sediments correspond to a year. During winter, when organisms die, carbon is deposited down, resulting to a black layer. At the same year, during summer, only few organic materials are deposited, resulting to a white layer at the lake bed. These are commonly used to track paleontological events which happened in the past.


Limnology is the study of inland bodies of water and related ecosystems. Limnology divides lakes into three zones: the littoral zone, a sloped area close to land; the photic or open-water zone, where sunlight is abundant; and the deep-water profundal or benthic zone, where little sunlight can reach. The depth to which light can reach in lakes depends on turbidity, determined by the density and size of suspended particle. A particle is in suspension if its weight is less than the random turbidity forces acting upon it. These particles can be sedimentary or biological in origin and are responsible for the color of the water. Decaying plant matter, for instance, may be responsible for a yellow or brown color, while algae may cause greenish water. In very shallow water bodies, iron oxides make water reddish brown. Biological particles include algae and detritus. Bottom-dwelling detritivorous fish can be responsible for turbid waters, because they stir the mud in search of food. Piscivorous fish contribute to turbidity by eating plant-eating (planktonivorous) fish, thus increasing the amount of algae (see aquatic trophic cascade). The light depth or transparency is measured by using a Secchi disk, a 20-centimeter (8 in) disk with alternating white and black quadrants. The depth at which the disk is no longer visible is the Secchi depth, a measure of transparency. The Secchi disk is commonly used to test for eutrophication. For a detailed look at these processes, see lentic ecosystems.

A lake moderates the surrounding region's temperature and climate because water has a very high specific heat capacity (4,186 J·kg−1·K−1). In the daytime, a lake can cool the land beside it with local winds, resulting in a sea breeze; in the night, it can warm it with a land breeze.

How lakes disappear

A lake may be infilled with deposited sediment and gradually become a wetland such as a swamp or marsh. Large water plants, typically reed, accelerate this closing process significantly because they partially decompose to form peat soils that fill the shallows. Conversely, peat soils in a marsh can naturally burn and reverse this process to recreate a shallow lake. Turbid lakes and lakes with many plant-eating fish tend to disappear more slowly. A "disappearing" lake (barely noticeable on a human timescale) typically has extensive plant mats at the water's edge. These become a new habitat for other plants, like peat moss when conditions are right, and animals, many of which are very rare. Gradually the lake closes, and young peat may form, forming a fen. In lowland river valleys, where a river can meander, the presence of peat is explained by the infilling of historical oxbow lakes. In the very last stages of succession, trees can grow in, eventually turning the wetland into a forest.

Some lakes can disappear seasonally. These are called intermittent lakes and are typically found in karstic terrain. A prime example of an intermittent lake is Lake Cerknicamarker in Sloveniamarker.

Sometimes a lake will disappear quickly. On 3 June, 2005, in Nizhny Novgorod Oblast, Russiamarker, a lake called Lake Beloye vanished in a matter of minutes. News sources reported that government officials theorized that this strange phenomenon may have been caused by a shift in the soil underneath the lake that allowed its water to drain through channels leading to the Oka River.

The presence of ground permafrost is important to the persistence of some lakes. According to research published in the journal Science ("Disappearing Arctic Lakes," June 2005), thawing permafrost may explain the shrinking or disappearance of hundreds of large Arctic lakes across western Siberia. The idea here is that rising air and soil temperatures thaw permafrost, allowing the lakes to drain away into the ground.

Neusiedler Seemarker, located in Austriamarker and Hungarymarker, has dried up many times over the millennia. As of 2005, it is again rapidly losing water, giving rise to the fear that it will be completely dry by 2010.

Some lakes disappear because of human development factors. The shrinking Aral Seamarker is described as being "murdered" by the diversion for irrigation of the rivers feeding it.

Extraterrestrial lakes

At present the surface of the planet Mars is too cold and has too little atmospheric pressure to permit the pooling of liquid water on the surface. Geologic evidence appears to confirm, however, that ancient lakes once formed on the surface. It is also possible that volcanic activity on Mars will occasionally melt subsurface ice creating large lakes. Under current conditions this water would quickly freeze and evaporate unless insulated in some manner, such as by a coating of volcanic ash.

Only one world other than Earth is known to harbor lakes, Saturn's largest moon, Titan. Photographs and spectroscopic analysis by the Cassini-Huygens spacecraft show liquid ethane on the surface, which is thought to be mixed with liquid methane.

Jupiter's small moon Io is volcanically active due to tidal stresses, and as a result sulfur deposits have accumulated on the surface. Some photographs taken during the Galileo mission appear to show lakes of liquid sulfur on the surface.

There are dark basaltic plains on the Moon, similar to lunar maria but smaller, that are called lacus (singular lacus, Latin for "lake") because they were thought by early astronomers to be lakes of water.

Notable lakes

  • Lake Michigan-Huron is the largest lake by surface area: 117,350 km². It also has the longest lake coastline in the world: 8,790 km. If Huron and Michigan are considered two lakes, Lake Superiormarker is the largest lake, with 82,414 km². However, Huron still has the longest coastline at 6,157 km (2980 km excluding the coastlines of its many inner islands). The world's smallest geological ocean, the Caspian Seamarker, at 394,299 km² has a surface area greater than the six largest freshwater lakes combined, and it's frequently cited as the world's largest lake.
  • The deepest lake is Lake Baikalmarker in Siberiamarker, with a bottom at 1,637 m. Its mean depth is also the greatest in the world (749 m)

    It is also the world's largest lake by volume (23,600 km³, though smaller than the Caspian Sea at 78,200 km³), and the second longest (about 630 km from tip to tip).
  • The longest lake is Lake Tanganyikamarker, with a length of about 660 km (measured along the lake's center line).

    It is also the second deepest in the world (1,470 m) after lake Baikal.
  • The world's oldest lake is Lake Baikalmarker, followed by Lake Tanganyikamarker (Tanzania).
  • The world's highest lake is the crater lake of Ojos del Saladomarker, at . The Lhagba Pool in Tibet at comes second.
  • The highest large freshwater lake in the world is Lake Manasarovarmarker in Tibet Autonomous Region of China.
  • The world's highest commercially navigable lake is Lake Titicacamarker in Perumarker and Boliviamarker at . It is also the largest freshwater (and second largest overall) lake in South America.
  • The world's lowest lake is the Dead Seamarker, bordering Israelmarker, Jordanmarker at 418 m (1,371 ft) below sea level. It is also one of the lakes with highest salt concentration.
  • Lake Huronmarker has the longest lake coastline in the world: about 2980 km, excluding the coastline of its many inner islands.
  • The largest island in a freshwater lake is Manitoulin Islandmarker in Lake Huronmarker, with a surface area of 2,766 km². Lake Manitoumarker, located on Manitoulin Island, is the largest lake on an island in a freshwater lake.
  • The largest lake located on an island is Nettilling Lakemarker on Baffin Islandmarker, with an area of 5542 km² and a maximum length of 123 km. .
  • The largest lake in the world that drains naturally in two directions is Wollaston Lakemarker.
  • Lake Tobamarker on the island of Sumatramarker is located in what is probably the largest resurgent caldera on Earth.
  • The largest lake located completely within the boundaries of a single city is Lake Wanapiteimarker in the city of Sudburymarker, Ontariomarker, Canadamarker.

    Before the current city boundaries came into effect in 2001, this status was held by Lake Ramseymarker, also in Sudbury.
  • Lake Enriquillomarker in Dominican Republicmarker is the only saltwater lake in the world inhabited by crocodiles.

Largest by continent

The largest lakes (surface area) by continent are:
  • Australia - Lake Eyremarker (salt lake)
  • Africa - Lake Victoriamarker, also the third largest freshwater lake on Earth. It is one of the Great Lakes of Africamarker.
  • Antarctica - Lake Vostokmarker (subglacial)
  • Asia - Lake Baikalmarker (if the Caspian Seamarker is considered a lake, it is the largest in Eurasia, but is divided between the two geographic continents)
  • Oceania - Lake Eyremarker when filled; the largest permanent (and freshwater) lake in Oceania is Lake Taupomarker.
  • Europe - Lake Ladogamarker, followed by Lake Onegamarker, both located in northwestern Russiamarker.
  • North America - Lake Michigan-Huron, which is hydrologically a single lake. However, Lakes Huronmarker and Michiganmarker are often considered separate lakes, in which case Lake Superiormarker would be the largest.
  • South America - Lake Titicacamarker, which is also the highest navigable body of water on Earth at 3,821 m above sea level. The much larger Lake Maracaibomarker is considered by some to be the second oldest lake on Earth, but since it lies at sea level and nowadays is a contiguous body of water with the sea, others consider that it has turned into a bay.

See also


  1. The Caspian Sea is generally regarded by geographers, biologists and limnologists as a huge inland salt lake. However, the Caspian large size means that for some purposes it is better modeled as a sea.SCREW WIKIPEDIA Geologically, the Caspian, Black, and Mediterranean seas are remnants of the ancient Tethys Ocean. Politically, the distinction between a sea and a lake may affect how the Caspian is treated by international law.
  2. Statistics Finland
  3. Minnesota Driver and Vehicle Services
  4. Downing JA, Prairie YT, Cole JJ, Duarte CM, Tranvick LJ, Striegel RG, McDowell WH, Kortelainen P, Melack JM, Middleburg JJ (2006). The global abundance and size distribution of lakes, ponds and impoundments. Limnology and Oceanography, 51: 2388-2397.
  5. :: The Montana Standard ::
  6. Andes Website - Information about Ojos del Salado volcano, a high mountain in South America and the World's highest volcano
  7. Highest Lake
  8. The Lake and Island Combination

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