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A lake is a naturally occurring, relatively large body of water localized in a basin completely surrounded by dry land,[1] with much slower-moving flow than any inflow or outflow streams that serve to feed or drain it.[2] Lakes lie completely on land and are separate from the ocean, although, like the much larger oceans, they form part of the Earth's water cycle by serving as large standing pools of storage water. Most lakes are freshwater, but some are salt lakes with salinities even higher than that of seawater.


Lakes are typically much larger and deeper than ponds, which are also water-filled basins on land, although there are no official definitions or scientific criteria distinguishing the two.[3] Most lakes are both fed and drained by creeks and rivers, but some lakes are endorheic without any outflow, while volcanic lakes are filled directly by precipitation runoffs and do not have any inflow streams.[4] Lakes are also distinct from lagoons, which are shallow tidal pools dammed by sandbars at coastal regions.

Natural lakes are generally found in mountainous areas (i.e. alpine lakes), dormant volcanic craters, rift zones and areas with ongoing glaciation. Other lakes are found in depressed landforms or along the courses of mature rivers, where a river channel has widened over a basin formed by eroded floodplains and wetlands. Some parts of the world have many lakes formed by the chaotic drainage patterns left over from the last ice age. All lakes are temporary over long periods of time, as they will slowly fill in with sediments or spill out of the basin containing them.

Artificially controlled lakes are known as reservoirs, and are usually constructed for industrial or agricultural use, for hydroelectric power generation, for supplying domestic drinking water, for ecological or recreational purposes, or for other human activities.

The majority of lakes on Earth are freshwater, and most lie in the Northern Hemisphere at higher latitudes.[13] Canada, with a deranged drainage system, has an estimated 31,752 lakes larger than 3 square kilometres (1.2 sq mi) in surface area.[14] The total number of lakes in Canada is unknown but is estimated to be at least 2 million.[15] Finland has 187,888 lakes of 500 square metres (5,400 sq ft) in area, or larger, of which 56,000 are large (10,000 square metres (110,000 sq ft) or larger).[16]

Most lakes have at least one natural outflow in the form of a river or stream, which maintain a lake's average level by allowing the drainage of excess water.[4][17] Some lakes do not have a natural outflow and lose water solely by evaporation or underground seepage, or both. These are termed endorheic lakes.

The number of lakes on Earth is undetermined because most lakes and ponds are very small and do not appear on maps or satellite imagery.[18][19][20][21] Despite this uncertainty, a large number of studies agree that small ponds are much more abundant than large lakes. For example, one widely cited study estimated that Earth has 304 million lakes and ponds, and that 91% of these are 1 hectare (2.5 acres) or less in area.[18] Despite the overwhelming abundance of ponds, almost all of Earth's lake water is found in fewer than 100 large lakes; this is because lake volume scales superlinearly with lake area.[22]

Extraterrestrial lakes exist on the moon Titan, which orbits the planet Saturn.[23] The shape of lakes on Titan is very similar to those on Earth.[20][24][25] Lakes were formerly present on the surface of Mars, but are now dry lake beds.[19][26][27]

In 1957, G. Evelyn Hutchinson published a monograph titled A Treatise on Limnology,[28] which is regarded as a landmark discussion and classification of all major lake types, their origin, morphometric characteristics, and distribution.[29][30][31] Hutchinson presented in his publication a comprehensive analysis of the origin of lakes and proposed what is a widely accepted classification of lakes according to their origin. This classification recognizes 11 major lake types that are divided into 76 subtypes. The 11 major lake types are:[29][30][31]

Tectonic lakes are lakes formed by the deformation and resulting lateral and vertical movements of the Earth's crust. These movements include faulting, tilting, folding, and warping. Some of the largest lakes on Earth are rift lakes occupying rift valleys, e.g. Central African Rift lakes and Lake Baikal. Other well-known tectonic lakes, Caspian Sea, the Sea of Aral, and other lakes from the Pontocaspian occupy basins that have been separated from the sea by the tectonic uplift of the sea floor above the ocean level.[28][30][29][31]

Often, the tectonic action of crustal extension has created an alternating series of parallel grabens and horsts that form elongate basins alternating with mountain ranges. Not only does this promote the creation of lakes by the disruption of preexisting drainage networks, it also creates within arid regions endorheic basins that contain salt lakes (also called saline lakes). They form where there is no natural outlet, a high evaporation rate and the drainage surface of the water table has a higher-than-normal salt content. Examples of these salt lakes include Great Salt Lake and the Dead Sea. Another type of tectonic lake caused by faulting is sag ponds.[28][30][29][31]

Volcanic lakes are lakes that occupy either local depressions, e.g. craters and maars, or larger basins, e.g. calderas, created by volcanism. Crater lakes are formed in volcanic craters and calderas, which fill up with precipitation more rapidly than they empty via either evaporation, groundwater discharge, or a combination of both. Sometimes the latter are called caldera lakes, although often no distinction is made. An example is Crater Lake in Oregon, in the caldera of Mount Mazama. The caldera was created in a massive volcanic eruption that led to the subsidence of Mount Mazama around 4860 BCE. Other volcanic lakes are created when either rivers or streams are dammed by lava flows or volcanic lahars.[28][30][29][31] The basin which is now Malheur Lake, Oregon was created when a lava flow dammed the Malheur River.[32] Among all lake types, volcanic crater lakes most closely approximate a circular shape.[4]

Glacial lakes are lakes created by the direct action of glaciers and continental ice sheets. A wide variety of glacial processes create enclosed basins. As a result, there are a wide variety of different types of glacial lakes and it is often difficult to define clear-cut distinctions between different types of glacial lakes and lakes influenced by other activities. The general types of glacial lakes that have been recognized are lakes in direct contact with ice, glacially carved rock basins and depressions, morainic and outwash lakes, and glacial drift basins. Glacial lakes are the most numerous lakes in the world. Most lakes in northern Europe and North America have been either influenced or created by the latest, but not last, glaciation, to have covered the region.[28][30][29][31] Glacial lakes include proglacial lakes, subglacial lakes, finger lakes, and epishelf lakes. Epishelf lakes are highly stratified lakes in which a layer of freshwater, derived from ice and snow melt, is dammed behind an ice shelf that is attached to the coastline. They are mostly found in Antarctica.[33]

The most common type of fluvial lake is a crescent-shaped lake called an oxbow lake due to the distinctive curved shape. They can form in river valleys as a result of meandering. The slow-moving river forms a sinuous shape as the outer side of bends are eroded away more rapidly than the inner side. Eventually a horseshoe bend is formed and the river cuts through the narrow neck. This new passage then forms the main passage for the river and the ends of the bend become silted up, thus forming a bow-shaped lake.[28][29][30][31] Their crescent shape gives oxbow lakes a higher perimeter to area ratio than other lake types.[4]

Lakes formed by other processes responsible for floodplain basin creation. During high floods they are flushed with river water. There are four types: 1. Confluent floodplain lake, 2. Contrafluent-confluent floodplain lake, 3. Contrafluent floodplain lake, 4. Profundal floodplain lake.[36]

A solution lake is a lake occupying a basin formed by surface dissolution of bedrock. In areas underlain by soluble bedrock, its solution by precipitation and percolating water commonly produce cavities. These cavities frequently collapse to form sinkholes that form part of the local karst topography. Where groundwater lies near the grounds surface, a sinkhole will be filled water as a solution lake.[28][30] If such a lake consists of a large area of standing water that occupies an extensive closed depression in limestone, it is also called a karst lake. Smaller solution lakes that consist of a body of standing water in a closed depression within a karst region are known as karst ponds.[37] Limestone caves often contain pools of standing water, which are known as underground lakes. Classic examples of solution lakes are abundant in the karst regions at the Dalmatian coast of Croatia and within large parts of Florida.[28]

A landslide lake is created by the blockage of a river valley by either mudflows, rockslides, or screes. Such lakes are most common in mountainous regions. Although landslide lakes may be large and quite deep, they are typically short-lived.[28][29][30][31] An example of a landslide lake is Quake Lake, which formed as a result of the 1959 Hebgen Lake earthquake.[38]

Most landslide lakes disappear in the first few months after formation, but a landslide dam can burst suddenly at a later stage and threaten the population downstream when the lake water drains out. In 1911, an earthquake triggered a landslide that blocked a deep valley in the Pamir Mountains region of Tajikistan, forming the Sarez Lake. The Usoi Dam at the base of the valley has remained in place for more than 100 years but the terrain below the lake is in danger of a catastrophic flood if the dam were to fail during a future earthquake.[39] 041b061a72


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