Weekly Warm-Up: Great Lakes Literacy Principles: Our Freshwater Sea!

Get ready for World Water Day this Tuesday with a fresh look at the Great Lakes! This post was written by Rosanne Fortner, the Director of COSEE (Centers for Ocean Sciences Education Excellence), and Lyndsey Manzo, a high school teacher, in 2010. 

When we think about freshwater and its importance to all life, our thoughts should turn to how and where we are educating about this critical resource.

A view of Earth from space shows how much freshwater is found in just one location: the Great Lakes of North America! The Great Lakes are a dominant physical feature of North America and form part of the political boundary between the United States and Canada. They contain nearly 95% of the surface water of the United States, and about 20% of the entire world’s fresh surface water.

NASA captured this gorgeous image of the Great Lakes on a cloudless summer day in 2010. Learn more here. NASA image by Jeff Schmaltz, MODIS Rapid Response Team, Goddard Space Flight Center
NASA captured this gorgeous image of the Great Lakes on a cloudless summer day in 2010. Learn more here.
NASA image by Jeff Schmaltz, MODIS Rapid Response Team, Goddard Space Flight Center

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The Great Lakes system includes the five Great Lakes themselves (Superior, Huron, Michigan, Erie and Ontario), as well as Lake St. Clair (part of the border between Ontario and Michigan) and the lakes’ connecting channels. The Great Lakes system spans more than 1,200 kilometers (745 miles) from east to west, and some 724 kilometers (450 miles) north to south.

These vast freshwater seas that form the north coast of the United States have more than 16,000 kilometers (10,000 miles) of shoreline—roughly the same as the Atlantic coast. The Great Lakes drain more than 247,000 square kilometers (95,367 square miles) of watershed.

A study of the Great Lakes inland seas would exhibit the interactions of Earth systems, scientific research, and cultural significance equivalent to those of a study of the “salty” coastlines. The two countries, 19 federally recognized tribes, eight U.S. states, and two Canadian provinces that touch the Lakes represent a mighty but fragile ecosystem that supports the region’s way of life and 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.

It is amazing to those of us who live in the Great Lakes region that the grandeur and importance of our fresh water resource are not only little understood by people in the rest of the country, but also many of those in the region itself! To that end, educators in the Centers for Ocean Sciences Education Excellence [COSEE] Great Lakes saw a need to develop Great Lakes Literacy Principles as guidance for the education of students and the public.

Here are the Essential Principles:

1.  The Great Lakes, bodies of fresh water with many features, are connected to each other and to the world ocean.

2.  Natural forces formed the Great Lakes; the lakes continue to shape the features of their watershed.

3.  The Great Lakes influence local and regional weather and climate.

4.  Water makes Earth habitable; fresh water sustains life on land.

5. The Great Lakes support a broad diversity of life and ecosystems.

6.  The Great Lakes and humans in their watersheds are inextricably interconnected.

7.  Much remains to be learned about the Great Lakes.

8.  The Great Lakes are socially, economically, and environmentally significant to the region, the nation and the planet.

Educators around the Great Lakes have begun using the framework to encourage more fresh water and Great Lakes content in curricula and to focus state agency efforts toward education that is recognized for relevance to Great Lakes science. A brochure is available for download or mailing, and the website http://greatlakesliteracy.net provides resources for teaching about the principles and their fundamental concepts.

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Join us in helping others learn about this fantastic freshwater resource!

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