In ages past, our planet was largely covered by massive ice sheets. As the ice receded (and continues to recede in some places), massive lakes were left behind in the carved-out landmasses. In this list, we searched for the largest (and frequently most awe-inspiring) lakes on Earth, all ranked by size according to their surface area. From a mysterious lake hidden below two miles of ice to a lake where you can embark on a 745-mile long adventure trek through bog and rocky shores, this list of the world’s largest lakes brings you some of the most impressive and pristine bodies of water on Earth. From a lake which can grow its surface area by six times in the rainy season to a lake thronged by crocodiles and scorpions, the lakes on this list may also lead you to add some new places to your bucket list. Grab your water wings (or dry suit for the frosty Arctic lakes) and take a dip in this list of the 25 largest and most impressive lakes in the world.
If you enjoyed the world’s largest and most impressive lakes, then you might just be interested to learn about the world’s largest islands. Who knows, they could be good vacation spots.
Featured image: By Eric Molina via Flickr
Reindeer Lake - 2,180 mi²
Starting off our list of the largest lakes in the world is Canada’s Reindeer Lake. Located in western Canada, Reindeer Lake has a stunning coastline with innumerable inlets and bays and multiple islands dotting the lake. Its southern end is home to Deep Bay, the crash landing spot of a meteorite impact from 140 million years ago. Local legends say a monster dwells in the bay and drags animals through the ice in winter.
Lake Turkana - 2,473 mi²
Previously named Lake Rudolf, the Kenyan-Ethiopian Lake Turkana is the world’s largest permanent desert lake. The area along Lake Turkana is important to anthropologists as many hominid (pre- and early-human) fossils have been found in its environs. Beware if you want to explore the lake without a tourist guide – plenty of Nile crocodiles, carpet vipers, and scorpions live in and around the lake and violent storms appear suddenly due to rapidly morphing local weather patterns.
Lake Taymyr - 1,760 mi²
The largest lake in the Arctic Circle, Lake Taymyr is located in northern Russia. Though covered in ice for nine months of the year, the lake supports many diverse Arctic fish such as the sig and loach. Nearby nuclear testing – including the 1961 test of Tsar Bomba, the largest and strongest nuclear device ever detonated, on the Novaya Zemiya archipelago – has led to minor lake contamination as plutonium particles were carried over by winds from the archipelago. Lake Taymyr’s Central Island is an active volcano which occasionally emits steam clouds.
Lake Athabasca - 3,030 mi²
Lake Athabasca, located in central Canada, is home to the Lake Athabasca Sand Dunes: the largest active dunes on Earth north of 58°. Beyond this title, the lake also produced the world record lake trout weighing in at 102 pounds (46.3 kg). Heavy uranium and oil mining near the lake have led to serious pollution levels in the lake.
Lake Nicaragua - 3,089 mi²
Lake Nicaragua is the 21st largest lake in the world and one of the coolest. Though it drains to the Caribbean Sea on Nicaragua’s east, the lake is so close to the Pacific Ocean it can be seen from one of its two lake island-mountains. Before the Panama Canal was built, Cornelius Vanderbilt (famous U.S. railroad magnate) worked on securing the area as an alternative interoceanic canal. The idea has been revisited and the Nicaraguan government is in talks with builders though it’s unknown what stage of the process this potential Nicaragua Canal is at.
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Lake Titicaca - 3,141 mi²
Spanning the border between Peru and Bolivia, Lake Titicaca (Lake Titiqaqa in the local Quechua language) is the largest lake in South America by both volume and surface area. (Though Lake Maracaibo in Venezuela has a greater surface area, it’s technically a bay as it is connected directly to the ocean.) Nicknamed the “highest navigable lake in the world”, Titicaca is famous for its reed boats which ethnographer Thor Heyerdahl speculated may have been inspired by Egyptian reed boats on the Nile. (He built a reed boat and sailed without any supplies from Morocco to the Caribbean, demonstrating it could be done.)
Lake Onega - 3,700 mi²
Following #14, Lake Onega in northwestern Russia is the second largest lake in Europe. Famous for its 1,650 lake islands, Lake Onega also hosts the UNESCO World Heritage site of Kizhi Pogost: a collection of 89 wooden architectural marvels including a church with 22 domes. The Svir River drains part of the lake into #14.
Lake Vostok - 4,830 mi²
Did you know there are lakes in Antarctica? About 400 subglacial lakes (liquid water beneath glacial ice) are known to exist in our southernmost continent, including its largest: Lake Vostok. Named after the Russian research station it’s located under, Lake Vostok has been cut off from other water bodies for up to 25 million years. The past few years have been pretty exciting as research teams drilled down over two miles (over three kilometers) of ice to pull a fresh water sample for analysis.
Tonlé Sap Lake - 6,200 mi²
One of the most important facets of Cambodia, the Tonlé Sap Lake is the largest lake in Southeast Asia. During monsoon season, the Tonlé Sap River reverses course and flows from southeast to northwest. The lake then swells, creating one of the most productive fisheries in the world. Ranging from a minimum 1,000 square miles (2,700 sq km) during the dry season to its max of 6,200 square miles (16,000 sq km), the lake provides three-quarters of Cambodia’s inland fish production. The Tonlé Sap Lake is an important resource for Cambodians as its fish are their primary source of protein.
Lake Balkhash - 6,300 mi²
Kazakhstan’s Lake Balkhash is generally frozen during four months of winter. Located in one of the driest watersheds in the world, the lake does not flow into any ocean, making it a terminal lake like its near-neighbor #1. Balkhash had many similarities to #15 until biodiversity populations massively declined in the latter. An example of failed species introduction, Lake Balkhash has seen many of its native fish species decline due to non-native fish species.
Aral Sea - 6,626 mi²
One of the most decimated lakes on the planet, the Aral Sea is a prime example of the effects of environmental degradation on an ecosystem. The lake has lost over 70% of its surface area and over 90% of the water flowing into it. The resulting increase in salinity coupled with the introduction of non-native fish and open-air biological weapons testing on its largest island have turned the Aral Sea into a near-environmental wasteland. (The picture shows the Aral Sea in 1989 (left) and 2004 (right).)
Lake Ladoga - 6,800 mi²
Just to the east of St. Petersburg, Lake Ladoga is by-far the largest lake in Europe, almost twice the size of its closest rival. A lake of glacial and tectonic origin, Lake Ladoga has served as an important trade route for thousands of years and has been hotly contested by Russians, Swedes, and more. Thrill seekers will love the Lake Ladoga Challenge, “the world’s biggest 4×4 adventure”. Teams in 4x4s race and trudge around the lake’s 745 miles (1,200 km) terrain of bog, river crossings, and rocks as big as the cars.
Lake Ontario - 7,340 mi²
The furthest east of the Great Lakes, Lake Ontario is also the smallest of the group. However, its depth means its water volume is almost four times greater than Lake Erie, its primary water source (80%) via the Niagara River. Over a mile of ice pushed down on the area a few thousand years ago, compressing the land. When the ice receded, Lake Ontario was originally a bay, but its rebounding of around 12 inches (30 cm) per century mean that its level has since been rising and it has since been flowing out into the Atlantic Ocean.
Lake Winnipeg - 9,465 mi²
Lake Winnipeg used to be a part of the ancient glacial Lake Agaziz before glaciers receded in northern North America from 12,000 to 8,000 years ago. The 12th largest lake in the world by area, Lake Winnipeg has a massive catchment area, bringing in water from an area over 20 times its size. A large UNESCO biosphere reserve and World Heritage Site has been proposed for a section the size of Denmark on the lake’s eastern shore. The area would be a new site for First Nations peoples (Canada’s Native American population).
Lake Erie - 9,910 mi²
Though it’s the smallest of the Great Lakes by volume (#13 is the smallest by area), Lake Erie has the most densely populated shores and watersheds of all the lakes. Understandably, erosion and toxic dumping from surrounding industries threaten the water quality of the lake. The lake is drained by the Niagara River which leads to the popular tourist attraction, Niagara Falls, on its eastern edge.
Great Slave Lake - 10,502 mi²
North America’s deepest lake, Canada’s Great Slave Lake drains through the MacKenzie River north into the Arctic Ocean. The lake is named after the Slavey First Nations people living on the lake’s southern edges. During winter, the frozen lake is an important ice road.
Lake Malawi - 11,400 mi²
Sometimes referred to as Lake Nyasa or Lake Niassa, southeastern Africa’s Lake Malawi is likely the most diverse lake on Earth for its fish species. An important resource for the people in bordering Malawi, Mozambique, and Tanzania, the lake is constantly threatened by agricultural runoff and fires built around its shores to burn off vegetation.
Great Bear Lake - 12,028 mi²
Canada’s Great Bear Lake is one of the largest and coolest looking lakes on this list, resembling an open bear jaw. The largest lake entirely within Canada, this Arctic Circle lake is frozen from November to July and is overall one of the most serene and pristine bodies of water on Earth. Over the centuries, uranium, silver, and copper have all been mined along the lake’s shores.
Lake Baikal - 12,248 mi²
At 5,371 feet (1,637 m) deep, Lake Baikal is the deepest lake in the world. Its astounding depth makes it the largest freshwater lake in the world by volume in addition to its title as the seventh largest lake by surface area. The lake holds many records, including one of the oldest lakes on Earth (appearing over 20 million years ago). It rests on Earth’s deepest land depression and rests over a little-understood fault zone. Lake Baikal is also known as one of the cleanest on our planet, largely due to its bedrock watershed and an algal- and bacteria-hungry shrimp living throughout it.
Lake Tanganyika - 12,700 mi²
One of the most biologically diverse lakes on Earth, Lake Tanganyika is the third largest lake by volume after #7 and #1. Another ancient lake, Tanganyika is half the size of #3 but drains the same amount of area: about 77,220 square miles (200,000 square km). It drains an area seven times larger than its size, largely due to its long, narrow shape which almost (but not quite) makes it the longest freshwater lake in the world.
Lake Michigan - 22,300 mi²
The largest lake entirely within one country, Lake Michigan is the only Great Lake which does not share a border with Canada. Over 60% of North American steel manufacturing is made near to and flows out along the Great Lakes. Major U.S. cities located along Lake Michigan include Chicago and Milwaukee, major manufacturing hubs for the American Midwest.
Lake Huron - 23,000 mi²
Lake Huron is unique for harboring the world’s largest lake island: Manitoulin Island. It’s also the fourth largest lake in the world, but when combined with Lake Michigan (to form Lake Michigan-Huron) since there is no clear nor hydrologic boundary between the two, it is the second largest.
Lake Victoria - 26,600 mi²
Bordering Uganda, Kenya, and Tanzania, Lake Victoria is the largest lake in Africa and the third largest lake in the world. The lake is under great pressure from surrounding communities, losing over 200 fish species to extinction in the past 50 years. Nonetheless, some estimates cite the lake as the most productive freshwater fishery in the world. Over 500,000 tons of fish worth $400 million are pulled from Lake Victoria’s waters annually.
Lake Superior - 31,700 mi²
Lake Superior is the largest of the Great Lakes by both volume and surface area. The 1970’s saw major eutrophication (the generally unintentional introduction of chemicals and fertilizers which lead to algal blooms and other effects which can choke an ecosystem) which dramatically reduced water quality. In recent years, the lake has been one of the most rapidly warming lakes on Earth and is in great danger with the loss of most (79%) of its ice.
Caspian Sea - 143,200 mi²
Despite its name, the Caspian Sea is the largest lake in the world by area (and is one of a few ancient lakes on Earth which have been around for millions of years). Bordered by Azerbaijan, Iran, Kazakhstan, Russia, and Turkmenistan, the Caspian Sea is a salty lake, largely because it does not eventually drain into the ocean. Thus, minerals are left behind when the water evaporates, making it saltier. The Caspian Sea is so large that its length is almost equivalent to twice the length of the U.S. state of Florida.