When looking to determine the largest lakes in the world, it is important to define the parameters on which you wish to operate. There are at least two metrics by which you can evaluate size and different metrics yield different, sometimes surprising results. The most conventional way to evaluate the size of a lake is by its surface area. Surface area is how one would perceive a lake when looking at it on a map, from satellite imagery, or when beholding it in person and so it’s fair to evaluate lakes based on this metric.
The Caspian Sea is the world’s largest lake by surface area and dwarfs all other contenders. At 143,000 square miles, the Caspian Sea is over four times the size of Lake Superior, the world’s next largest lake. The Caspian Sea is, remarkably, larger than two-thirds of the world’s countries, including Germany, Italy, and Malaysia. Its coastline of 4,237 miles is almost twice as far as the distance between New York City and Los Angeles.
Lake Superior is the world’s second largest lake by surface area, coming in at 31,700 square miles. One may notice that North America boasts a disproportionately high number of large lakes. This is due to a large geological feature called the Canadian Shield and its historical glacial activity.
The top ten largest lakes based strictly on surface area (square miles) include:
Honorable Mention: The Aral Sea. Just 50 years ago, the Aral Sea would have come in fourth on this list at 26,300 square miles. However, massive Soviet irrigation projects have emaciated the lake and today, the residual pools come in at little over 1,000 square miles all together.
Another metric by which one could fairly evaluate size is by volume. This is, perhaps, the more accurate evaluation, but is less conventionally used than surface area. If we compare these two lists, the contenders shift quite noticeably. The Caspian Sea still sits, untouchable at the top of the list with a volume of 18,800 cubic miles, but surprisingly Lake Baikal holds the second spot.
Lake Baikal in Russia is the world’s deepest lake at over one mile deep (5,387 ft). Naturally, Baikal’s depth contributes greatly to its overall volume. Lake Tanganyika in central Africa benefits similarly from its incredible depth of 4,823 ft. Conversely, Lake Superior is just the 36th deepest lake in the world (1,332), which causes it to fall to fourth on a list that considers volume.
The top ten largest lakes by volume (cubic miles) include: