What is commonly referred to as the Finger Lakes is a group of eleven long and narrow lakes situated in the west-central region of upstate New York. Their name comes from their overall shape – a group of bodies of water that appear as two hands with their fingers stretched out. The longest of all of the Finger Lakes, LakeCayuga, is approximately 38 miles long. Lake Cayuga can be about 430 feet deep in place, with some points being even deeper than sea level.
The geologically rich area makes the Finger Lakes of New York an exceptional place for education in the fields of geology and other earthsciences. Much geological work was performed in the Finger Lakes region during the early 19th century, because of the variety of sedimentary samples and the unusual exposure of the rocks. The geology not only affected the shape of the lakes, but it also shaped that commerce of the people who settled and inhabited the area.
Several theories exist that could potentially explain how the Finger Lakes of New York came to exist as they are today. They range from Native American folk tales to explanations that rely on the theories of the Ice Ageand glacial cycles. The Iroquois tribe that lived in the region ascribed meaning to the shape of the lakes. They believed that the shape was the hand print of the Great Spirit.
The geological approach to how the Finger Lakes were formed is vastly different from the folklore of the Native American Iroquois. It is believed that the Finger Lakes obtained their unique shape as a result of the last great ice age in the area. Scientists state that during the frozen period, the area now known as New York state was covered with sheets of ice and slow moving glaciers. In some points, the ice can be as thick as two miles. Prior to this ice age, however, the scientific community believes that the lakes of today were actually once rivers. They flowed in the opposite direction, as did the glaciers that eventually covered them. The glaciers that were covering the Finger Lakes originated in the Hudson Bay area in what is known today as northern Canada. As they flowed south, the eventually reached what were then just rivers. The glaciers helped expand the bodies of water, creating the lakes that they are today.
The Ice Age theory holds that the period was a time when summers were a lot colder than is typical. Thus, the snow and ice did not melt as it would today. Though it took tens of thousands of years to completely melt, when the glaciers finally did, they leave behind gravel deposits at the southern tips of the Finger Lakes. These gravel deposits indicated the existence of the glaciers that are widely believed to have created the shape of the Lakes as they are today. Much of the shape was created by the last wave of glaciers that covered the reason, though in the years that have passed the glacier-free environment has also played a role in their current shape.