The Great Lakes are used as a major mode of transportation for bulk goods. The brigantine Le Griffon, which was commissioned by René Robert Cavelier, Sieur de La Salle, was towed to the southern end of the Niagara River, to become the first ship to sail the upper Great Lakes on August 7, 1679.
In 2002, 162 million net tons of dry bulk cargo was moved on the Lakes. This was, in order of volume, iron ore, coal, stone, grain, salt, cement and potash. The iron ore and much of the stone and coal are used in the steel industry. There is also some shipping of liquid and containerized cargo but most container ship cannot pass the locks on the Saint Lawrence Seaway because they are too wide. The total amount of shipping on the lakes has been on a downward trend for several years.
Recreational boating and tourism are major industries on the Great Lakes. A few small cruise ships operate on the Great Lakes including a couple of sailing ships. Sport fishing, commercial fishing and Native American fishing represents a 4 billion dollar (US) a year industry with salmon, whitefish, smelt, lake trout, and walleye being major catches.
The Great Lakes are used to supply drinking water to tens of millions of people in bordering areas.
Several ferries operate on the Great Lakes to carry passengers to various islands, including Isle Royale, Pelee Island, Mackinac Island, Beaver Island, both Bois Blanc Islands, Kellys Island, South Bass Island, North Manitou Island, South Manitou Island, Harsens Island, Manitoulin Island, and the Toronto Islands. As of May, 2004, the only car ferry service across one of the Great Lakes operated across Lake Michigan from Ludington, Michigan to Manitowoc, Wisconsin. However, two additional car ferries are expected to begin service in June 2004: a second Lake Michigan route, from Milwaukee, Wisconsin, to Muskegon, Michigan, and an international ferry across Lake Ontario from Rochester, New York, to Toronto, Ontario.
The lakes have an effect on weather, known, logically, as lake effect. The presence of so much water as well as the temperature of the water plus the wind can combine to temper or even control the weather downwind. The most dramatic example is the amount of snow that falls on Buffalo, New York during the winter from moisture thrown off by Lake Erie. Other effects may be more subtle, such as the temperature buffering that produces areas known as "fruit belts," where fruit typically grown further south can be produced in commercial quantities.
Lake Champlain in upstate New York briefly became the sixth "Great Lake of the United States" on March 6, 1998, when President Clinton signed Senate Bill 927. This bill, which reauthorized the Sea Grant Program, contained a line penned by Senator Patrick Leahy (D-VT) declaring Lake Champlain to be a Great Lake. Not coincidentally, this status allows neighboring states to apply for additional federal research and education funds allocated to these national resources. Following a small uproar (and several New York Times articles), the Great Lake status was rescinded (although Vermont universities continue to receive funds to monitor and study the lake.)
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See also: Frontenac (the first steamer on the lakes, launched June 5, 1817).
- Pre-European History of the Lakes
- European History of the Lakes
- Great Lakes Ecology
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