The Largest Lakes in the World

The largest by surface area don't necessarily have the most water

Caspian Sea

 Elmar Akhmetov/Getty Images

The North American Great Lakes aren’t great just because Americans say they are. Four out of five of them also rank in the top 10 largest lakes in the world in terms of volume.

The largest inland body of water on our planet is the Caspian Sea, but it isn't on this list—politics between the five countries surrounding it (Azerbaijan, Iran, Kazakhstan, Russia, and Turkmenistan) have declared it neither a sea nor a lake. If we would include the Caspian Sea on the list, we’d find it dwarfing everything else. It holds 18,761 cubic miles (78,200 cubic kilometers) of water by volume, more than three times more water than all of the U.S. Great Lakes combined. It’s also the third deepest 3,363 feet (1,025 meters).

Only about 2.5 percent of the Earth’s water is liquid freshwater, and the world’s lakes hold 29,989 cubic miles (125,000 cubic km) of it. More than half is among the top five. 

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Baikal, Asia: 5,517 cubic mi (22,995 cubic km)

Cracks on icy Lake Baikal

 Wanson Luk/Getty Images

Lake Baikal, in southern Siberia, Russia, holds one-fifth of the world's fresh water. It is also the deepest lake in the world, with its deepest point at (1,741 m)—even deeper than the Caspian Sea. To add to the accolades, it might also be the one of the oldest on the planet, no less than 25 million years. More than 1,000 species of plants and animals there are unique to the region, found nowhere else.

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Tanganyika, Africa: 4,270 cubic mi (17,800 cubic km)

Mixed forest, chimpanzee habitat. east shore, Lake Tanganyika, Mahale Mountains National Park, Tanzania.

Auscape/Getty Images 

Lake Tanganyika, like some other large lakes on this list, was formed by movements of tectonic plates and thus is called a rift lake. The lake borders for countries: Tanzania, Zambia, Burundi, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. It measures 410 miles (660 km) long, the longest of any freshwater lake. In addition to being the second largest by volume, Lake Tanganyika is the second oldest and the second deepest, at 4,710 ft (1,436 m).

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Lake Superior, North America: 2,932 cubic mi (12,221 cubic km)

An aerial shot of the abandoned and iconic Ore Dock in Marquette, Michigan along the shore of Lake Superior.

Rudy Malmquist/Getty Images 

The largest freshwater lake by surface area in the world at 31,802 square miles (82,367 sq km), Lake Superior is more than 10,000 years old and holds 10 percent of the world’s freshwater. The lake borders on the states of Wisconsin, Michigan, and Minnesota in the United States, and the province of Ontario in Canada. It's average depth is 483 ft (147 m), and its maximum at 1,332 ft (406 m).

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Lake Malawi (Lake Nyasa), Africa: 1,865 cubic mi (7,775 cubic km)

Turquoise clear water and granite rocks, Mumbo Island, Cape Maclear, Lake Malawi, Malawi, Africa

 Michael Runkel / robertharding/Getty Images

People in Tanzania, Mozambique, and Malawi rely on Lake Malawi for freshwater, irrigation, food, and hydroelectricity. Its national park is a UNESCO Natural World Heritage Site, as it has more than 400 fish species, nearly all endemic. It is a rift lake like Tanganyika, and it is meromictic, meaning that its three distinct layers do not mix, providing different habitats for different species of fish. It has an average depth of 958 ft (292 m); and is 2,316 ft (706 m) at its deepest.

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Lake Michigan, North America: 1,176 cubic mi (4,900 cubic km)

USA, Illinois, Chicago, City skyline and Lake Michigan

Gavin Hellier/Getty Images 

The only Great Lake that is entirely in the United States, bordering the states of Wisconsin, Illinois, Indiana, and Michigan. Chicago, one of three largest cities in the United States, is located on its western shoreline. Like most of the other North American bodies of water, Lake Michigan was carved out 10,000 years ago by the glaciers. It has an average depth of about 279 ft (85 m), and its maximum is 925 ft (282 m).

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Lake Huron, North America: 849 cubic mi (3,540 cubic km)

settings Lighthouse By Lake Huron Against Sunset Sky

Vikrant Agarwal / EyeEm/Getty Images 

Lake Huron, bordering the United States (Michigan) and Canada (Ontario), has 120 lighthouses on its beaches, but its bottom is home to more than 1,000 shipwrecks, which are protected by the Thunder Bay Marine Sanctuary. Its average depth is 195 ft (59 m), and its maximum depth is 750 ft (229 m).

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Lake Victoria, Africa: 648 cubic mi (2,700 cubic km)

The source of the while nile river flowing from lake Victoria in Jinja, Uganda.

Ashit Desai/Getty Images

Lake Victoria is the largest lake in Africa by surface area ([69,485 sq km]), but only the third in volume. A total of 84 islands are found within its waters. Named after Queen Victoria, the lake is located in Tanzania, Uganda, and Kenya. It has an average depth of 135 ft (41 m) and a maximum of 266 ft (81 m).

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Great Bear Lake, North America: 550 cubic mi (2,292 cubic km)

Star trails over Patricia Lake and Pyramid Mountain in Jasper National Park, Alberta, Canada.

Alan Dyer/Stocktrek Images/Getty Images 

Great Bear Lake lies within the Arctic Circle and entirely within Canada's Northwest Territories. The pristine lake is the largest in Canada but is covered in ice and snow for most of the year. It is a protected UNESCO Biosphere Reserve. It has an average depth of about 235 ft (71.7 m), and it has a maximum depth of 1,463 ft (446 m).

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Issyk-Kul (Isyk-Kul, Ysyk-Köl), Asia: 417 cubic mi (1,738 cubic km)

Lake Issyk-köl ( Kyrgyzstan)

 Franck Metois/Getty Images

Issyk-Kul lake is located in the Tian Shan mountains of eastern Kyrgyzstsan. Although pollution, invasive species, and species extinction are threatening Issyk-Kul, conservation efforts have achieved naming it a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve. Preservation efforts had the 16 bird species in mind, as between 60,000 and 80,000 birds overwinter there. About half a million people live near it. The average depth is 913 ft (278.4 m); and the maximum depth is 2,192 ft (668 m).

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Lake Ontario, North America: 393 cubic mi (1,640 cubic km)

Ice capped rocks on wintery Lake Ontario

 Philippe Marion/Getty Images

All of the water in the Great Lakes flows through Lake Ontario. Located between Ontario, Canada and New York state in the U.S., the lake has an average depth of 382 ft (86) m and a maximum depth of 802 ft (244 m). Before dams were built on the St. Lawrence River, fish such as eel and sturgeons migrated between Lake Ontario and the Atlantic.

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Your Citation
Rosenberg, Matt. "The Largest Lakes in the World." ThoughtCo, Sep. 12, 2021, Rosenberg, Matt. (2021, September 12). The Largest Lakes in the World. Retrieved from Rosenberg, Matt. "The Largest Lakes in the World." ThoughtCo. (accessed June 2, 2023).