As a child, I took some satisfaction in the fact that Minnesota has 10,000 lakes, making it the most “lakey” state in the US. Naturally, I didn’t believe we had exactly 10,000 of them, but I could easily see the chagrin early explorers would have had if they had only found 9,999.
How many lakes are there in Minnesota? is a common question, and as a limnologist—a scientist who studies lakes and rivers—I have put in a significant amount of time counting and measuring lakes.
There is no way it is 10,000. And it’s not 11,842 as was stated on National Public Radio in 2019. When I was a graduate student, I tallied Minnesota’s lakes and found 17,246. But that’s also incorrect.
I’ll get to the answer in a moment, but first it’s critical to comprehend why, beyond state pride, this topic is significant.
Why Lakes Matter
In addition to being great spots for swimming, fishing, and vacations, lakes are crucial to Minnesota’s economy and beauty (and anywhere, really).
The amount of lake area present in the landscape (referred to as limnicity) significantly affects the land’s capacity to withstand or temper weather-related temperature variations. Due to its proximity to Lake Superior, Duluth has slower autumnal cooling and slower spring warming than other areas of Minnesota.
A large number of lakes and a large volume of lakes help Minnesotans maintain their water security since surface freshwater is one of nature’s most valuable resources. Additionally, having a lot of lake surface area is beneficial for outdoor leisure of many types, even if it doesn’t involve any water because lakes and ponds are significant animal habitats.
Because various-sized lakes have varied qualities that are significant to both humans and environment, the distribution of these lakes is also rather significant.
For instance, many like to go on vacation on huge lakes since they may be more enjoyable for boating and frequently have cleaner shorelines and beaches than small lakes. Because they are excessively choppy and tumultuous, large lakes are inhospitable to some animals and plants.
Around lakes of various sizes, the amount of shoreland is also crucial. Private shoreland ownership in Minnesota is estimated to be worth $76 billion, according to a 2018 tax records assessment by Minnesota Sea Grant.
The amount of shoreline has significant economic repercussions since it can influence the property tax base. The amount of territory covered by lakes, as well as the variety and quantity of lakes in the landscape, will fluctuate along with the climate.
I hope I have convinced you that there are several reasons why we count lakes and determine their sizes.
How many lakes are in Minnesota vs. Wisconsin?
Oh, this is a controversial subject.
Our Wisconsin neighbors and rivals frequently assert that they have more lakes than we do, but in our humble view, the answer truly depends on your criteria. (I didn’t have to tell you that Wisconsin’s are rather low.)
The DNR in Wisconsin asserts that there are over 15,000 lakes in the state. But there is just one issue.
What constitutes a lake in Wisconsin is not subject to any formal definitions or size restrictions.
A Wisconsin DNR spokesperson told KARE 11 that the state has 15,074 lakes in total but acknowledged there is no minimum size requirement for lakes in the state. (In other words, I’m assuming there are several ponds in total within that “lake”).
As we already said, Minnesota does. In fact, Minnesotans are so particular about their lakes that they only include bodies of water larger than 10 acres. (For comparison, depending on lot size, that’s equivalent to around 20–40 suburban homes.)
Who, therefore, has more lakes, everything else being equal? In other words, what happens if you just consider lakes in both states?
Who Has More Lakes Minnesota Or Wisconsin?
Recently, I came across an intriguing post on Politifact Wisconsin that explores the crucial question of which state has the most lakes:
Minnesota or Wisconsin? The discussion appears to have been sparked by a comment made by Sara Meaney, the secretary of tourism for Wisconsin, earlier this month on a radio program: “Wisconsin, many people may not be aware of, really has 15,000 freshwater lakes. … greater than Minnesota
According to the Wisconsin DNR, the state of Wisconsin is home to 15,074 lakes. Compared to other states, Minnesota has 11,842 according to data made accessible by the Minnesota DNR.
A definite “winner,” yes? Nope.
It turns out that the definition of a lake varies significantly between states. For all the graphic information, visit the story on Politifact Wisconsin. For those geography enthusiasts, it’s a truly fascinating read. Warning: If you were rooting for Wisconsin to win, you might be let down.
Why Lakes are Hard to Count
Why is it difficult to count Minnesota’s lakes precisely? Simply put, it’s easier to count tiny lakes than huge ones. Consider the last time you had to pick up glass fragments.
There were probably a couple big ones, a number of medium ones, and too many little fragments to count. At least in newly developed landscapes, this rule governs the distribution of lake sizes. There aren’t many large lakes, but there are a lot of medium-sized lakes and a lot of little ones.
By measuring and counting the larger lakes and using that number to estimate or predict the number of smaller lakes, lake scientists, or limnologists, can make reasonable estimations about the number of lakes in a landscape. About this, I wrote in Downing et al. (2006).
the distribution of lakes, ponds, and impoundments in terms of size and abundance worldwide. 2388–2397 in Limnology and Oceanography 51(5).
Are there really 10,000 lakes in Minnesota?
The unexpected response is yes!
The Minnesota DNR estimates that there are 11,842 lakes in the state.
The “The Land of 10,000 Lakes” boast on our license plates is simply an understatement!
According to the DNR, any body of water larger than 10 acres (4.05 hectares) qualifies as a lake.
Minnesota would have 21,871 lakes overall if we changed the threshold to include only lakes bigger than 2.5 acres. How many lakes, total, are larger than one acre? total of 43,041 lakes.
Using U.S. Geological Survey data, Minnesota has a staggering 124,662 total bodies of water, including lakes, ponds, rivers, and other bodies of water.
So, Minnesota Has How Many Lakes?
Roll the drums If you just count lakes that are in Minnesota and do not consider a few lakes that are largely in neighboring states, the MNDNR database estimates that Minnesota contains 14,380 lakes. and excluded waterbodies less than 10 acres.
10,000 Years Ago
The number of lakes and other waterbodies in Minnesota must have reached close to 4.6 million following the last glacier, which occurred roughly 10,000 years ago.
Nearly half of those 4.6 million lakes’ entire surface area, or 15,000 square miles, would have been taken up by bodies of water less than a quarter of an acre apiece (about 11,000 square feet). The actual number of lakes is unknown.
Because many lakes and ponds are too tiny or too faint to differentiate from the surrounding terrain, and because lakes may not even seem to be lakes in aerial or satellite photography, not even satellite images can help us.
The 4.6 million figure was then (10,000 years ago). What number is that right now?
Minnesota’s lakes provide 44,926 miles of shoreline
In other words, that amount of beachfront exceeds the combined length of California’s ocean and lakefront shorelines. (They only have a total of about 35,000 miles, lol!)
And given that the world is “only” roughly 25,000 miles in diameter, Minnesota’s coastline is almost long enough to circle the globe twice.
Total Miles of Shoreline
The quantity of shoreline Minnesota has is maybe what surprises me the most. Minnesota has 34,248 miles of lakefront when all lakes larger than 10 acres are taken into account. However, despite the fact that people greatly enjoy huge lakes, just 22% of this shoreline is on lakes bigger than 1,000 acres. On lakes between 10 and 100 acres in size, about 40% of the lakeshore in Minnesota is located.
Measuring Lake Size
Fortunately, the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources is also quite interested in this. They have been compiling a sizable database regarding every waterbody in Minnesota that may be considered since around 1991.
They achieved this by producing a map using a geographical information system (GIS) and calibrating it using measurements taken on the ground (ground truthing). Then, for each lake, pond, reservoir, wetland, river, and stream they could identify, they meticulously calculated its entire area as well as the length of its coastline.
They entered these waterbodies into the database wherever they could link them to people and other MNDNR data. I made a straightforward spreadsheet using the MNDNR database in a format that most people may find simpler to navigate through.
I preserved the Minnesota portions of lakes that straddle the Canadian border but deleted all of Minnesota’s lakes that are shared with other states in my less complex spreadsheet. Additionally, if a lake was made up of many lakes joined together, the MNDNR database included those multiple times.
Upper and Lower Red Lake, which were designated as both two distinct lakes and as one large lake, serve as a typical illustration of this. Those duplicates were eliminated. Some people may disagree with my decisions, but I didn’t do this for bragging rights; rather, I did it for limnological reasons.
For instance, some people consider Lake Minnetonka, which is made up of 16 largely distinct basin-lakes, to be a single lake. A lake is independent from a scientific or limnological perspective if water and material may move to all regions of the lake.
The biggest basin-lake of Lake Minnetonka, which is 5,986 acres in size and ranks as the 38th largest lake in Minnesota, is what I believe to be 16 distinct lakes. Between Cass Lake and Ottertail Lake, if I were to classify Lake Minnetonka as a single lake, the basin-lakes would total around 14,240 acres, making it the twelfth-largest lake in Minnesota.
Minnesota has the largest Great Lake in North America
The biggest freshwater lake in the world by surface area, Lake Superior is also the largest lake in Minnesota and the largest Great Lake in North America.
Despite this, not all of Lake Superior lies inside Minnesota’s state boundaries. Red Lake is the biggest lake that is wholly inside the state of Minnesota.
What’s the Difference Between a Lake and a Pond?
More than 117,000 waterbodies are included in the MNDNR database. 0.004 acres is the smallest (174 square feet). Nemo Pond, a little body of water, may be located in Isanti County. A lake is a body of water that is sufficiently large to have a wave-swept shore, according to limnologists, who study lakes.
A vigorous breeze of approximately 30 knots (34.5 mph) would need to blow across enough surface water to generate waves of about 4 inches in height and move fine silt in order to have a wave-swept coastline. This would be equivalent to a waterbody with an area of around 10 acres, assuming that a waterbody is more-or-less spherical.
Limnologists like myself believe that. What do others believe, though? I tallied the number of designated waterbodies—which people often refer to as ponds—in the MNDNR database. According to the research, individuals often refer to bodies of water bigger than 10 acres as lakes and less than 10 acres as ponds.
List of Lakes in Minnesota
To be completely honest, neither this page nor I have enough time to list every lake in Minnesota.
But thankfully, Wikipedia has a list of lakes in Minnesota here. The 4,500 most notable lakes in Minnesota are listed on the DNR’s Lake Finder portal, which is updated regularly and contains a wealth of information.