Great Lakes Environmental Assessment and Mapping Project

Shipping lanes

Freighter passes through Mackinac Straits (Photo: T. Lawrence)
Freighter passes through Mackinac Straits (Photo: T. Lawrence)

Great Lakes ports and harbors are connected by a complex network of shipping lanes, locks and navigation channels that allow ships to travel over 3000 km from Duluth, MN, to the Atlantic Ocean. Environmental impacts associated with shipping lanes include shoreline erosion from wave action caused by passing ships, substrate disturbance due to propeller wash in shallow areas, habitat degradation from ice-breaking and winter navigation and pollution from ship discharges.


Mapping shipping lanes as a Great Lakes stressor

  • We obtained shipping lanes data developed by the US Army Corps of Engineers,1 port locations  from the Great Lakes Maritime Research Institute,2  and international shipping route data for1996-2000 from Colautti et al.3
  • To estimate traffic by route, we recorded the first, second and third ports of call for each ship, and summed the number of ships traveling between each pair of ports. 
  • We used the network analyst tool in ArcGIS to identify 1,369 potential shipping routes between port pairs, of which 281 were used by the international ships in our data set.
  • We assumed ships traveled using the shortest route.

The most-traveled routes by all international ships included the east-west routes through Lake Ontario and Lake Erie and the north-south route in western Lake Huron. The most common trips originated in Thunder Bay (ON), Duluth-Superior (MN-WI), and Hamilton (ON), and were bound for overseas ports.

Great Lakes navigation routes correspond to nautical charts published by the National Ocean Survey and recommended to commercial shippers operating in the Great Lakes.4 We added a 2.5-km buffer to each side of the shipping channel to account for variation in route fidelity, wake effects and ship discharges.


Spatial distribution of shipping lanes as a stressor in the Laurentian Great Lakes (Inset: Western Lake Superior)


Data Sources: 

1.U.S. Army Corps. of Engineers. 2011. USACE Waterway Network. Great Lakes Maritime Research Institute. Toledo, Ohio, USA.
2. Great Lakes Maritime Research Institute. 2011. Great Lakes ports. Great Lakes MAritime Research Institute. Toledo, Ohio, USA.
3. Colautti, R.I., A.J. Niimi, C.D.A. van Overdijk, E.L. Mills, K. Holecek, and H.J. MacIsaac. 2004. Spatial and temporal analysis of transoceanic shipping vectors to the Great Lakes. In Invasive Species: Vectors and Management Strategies. Eds G.M. Ruiz and J.T. Carlson. Island Press, Washington D.C. Pages 227-246.
4. U.S. Department of Commerce, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, and National Ocean Survey.  2012. United States Coast Pilot 6, 42nd edition. Washington, D.C., USA.