How Many Lakes are There in the World?

Caitlin Dempsey


Counting the number of lakes in the world until recently was more of a guessing game than an exact science.  A recently study published in Geophysical Research Letters used satellite data to remotely sense the number of lakes larger than 0.002 square kilometers.  

An automated algorithm called GWEM (GeoCoverTM Water bodies Extraction Method) was used on cloud-free Landsat satellite imagery to extract information about the number and size of lakes around the world, excluding the world’s largest inland water body, the Caspian sea, Antarctica, and the glaciated areas of Greenland.  

Researchers found that there are 117 million lakes larger than 0.002 km2 in the world which collectively cover 3.7% of Earth’s nonglaciated land area.

Previous counts extrapolated the number of the lakes based on computer models that have turned out to be inaccurate.  In 2006, a study used a global model based on the Pareto distribution to estimate that there are 304 million lakes covering 4.2 million km2 in area, a calculation that turned out to grossly overestimate the number of lakes.

NASA’s Terra satellite image of the Great Lakes.  Acquired: September 26, 2014. Source: NASA.
NASA’s Terra satellite image of the Great Lakes. Acquired: September 26, 2014. Source: NASA.

Geographic Distribution of Lakes

Between 60°N and 56°S, the region for which elevation data are available, there are over 22 million water bodies larger than 0.01 km2, which together make up 1.4 percent of the world’s nonglaciated surface.

There are around 5 million lakes in an area with a greater lake surface area north of 60°N or south of 56°S. The latitudes of the boreal and arctic regions (45°-75°N) have the highest density of lakes (Figures a, c, and e in the graph below from the research). 

Elevation also plays a role in lake size and abundance with 85% of lakes, 50% of lake area, and 50% of total lake perimeter being located at elevations lower than 500 meters above sea level (Figures b, d, and f ).

Graphs showing the geographic distribution of lakes by abundance and total area. Source: Verpoorter et al., 2014.


Verpoorter, C., T. Kutser, D. A. Seekell, and L. J. Tranvik (2014), A global inventory of lakes based on high-resolution satellite imagery, Geophys. Res. Lett., 41, doi:10.1002/2014GL060641.

Downing, J. A., et al. (2006), The global abundance and size distribution of lakes, ponds, and impoundments, Limnol. Oceanogr., 51, 2388–2397, doi:10.4319/lo.2006.51.5.2388.


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About the author
Caitlin Dempsey
Caitlin Dempsey is the editor of Geography Realm and holds a master's degree in Geography from UCLA as well as a Master of Library and Information Science (MLIS) from SJSU.

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