North America > United States / Canada

Lake Erie: The Tenth Largest Freshwater Lake In The World

lakeLake Erie
countryUnited States, Canada
surface area25,768 km2
maximum depth64 m
average depth20 m
lake typeGlacial
length388 km
width92 km
catchment area679,904 km2
altitude172 m
volume499 km3
inflowsDetroit River
outflowsNiagara River, Welland Canal
islands24+
shore length1,936 km
age10000 - 100000
settlementsCleveland, Buffalo, Erie, Toledo
residence time590 days
frozen80 days
originGlacial
average discharge9,797 m3 / sec.

Lake Erie Information and Facts

Lake Erie, located on the border of the United States of America and Canada, is the tenth largest lake in the World. It is the southernmost of the Great American Lakes, and also the shallowest and smallest by volume of the five.

Geography

Although it has a surface area of 25 667 km2, the lake is merely the 4th largest of the Great Lakes, and 13th of all the lakes in the World. Besides being the shallowest with an average depth of 19 meters, it also has the shortest average water residence time of the five Great Lakes. Because of its low water levels, Lake Erie is the warmest, but can also freeze over during winter. The shallowest part is on the western side, where the average level is 9.1 meters. In this area even the slightest breeze can kick up lively waves. The area is also known as the “thunderstorm capital of Canada”, with spectacular lightning displays.

The lake is bordered by the Canadian province of Ontario to the North, the US states of Ohio, Pennsylvania and New York to the South and East, and Michigan to the West. A lot of cities and towns can be found around the large lake, including Buffalo, Erie, Pennsylvania, Toledo, Ohio, Ontario, Michigan and Cleveland.

There have been numerous reports of people in Cleveland who claimed to see the Canadian shoreline as if it were immediately off shore (even though it is located 80 kilometers away). Scientists have explained the Lake Erie “mirage-effect” as a weather-related phenomenon, working on similar principles as a mirage.

Geology

A large lowland basin was formed in the place of the lake we see today, nearly 2 million years ago. This was the result of an eastern flowing river, which existed before the Pleistocene ages. The drainage system was destroyed by the first major glacier of the area, which deepened and enlarged the lowlands, making it possible for water to settle and form a lake. The glaciers in the region managed to carve away more land on the east, where the bedrock is soft, made of shale. The western part is mainly made up of limestone rocks and carbonite dolomite, that’s why the eastern and central areas have managed to become deeper.

Lake Erie is the shallowest because of this glacial phenomenon. The ice became thin and lacked erosion power when it finally reached the southern area. Three main glaciers have advanced and ultimately retreated, temporarily forming plenty of lakes. The last glacial lake was Lake Warren, which existed 12-13 000 years ago. It was deeper than the current Lake Erie, and its shore existed 13 kilometers inland from the modern one. The old shores left behind high ground sand ridges, which cut through swamps and were used as trails by aboriginal Indians living in the area, and later by pioneers. Primitive roads were formed from these, which eventually got paved. Two main roads, US Route 30 and 20 were formed in such manner.

Hydrology

The vast majority of the lake’s total inflow comes from its main tributary, the Detroit River, bringing in the water from the other lakes. Other contributors to the lake are the Grand, Huron, Maumee, Sandusky, Buffalo and Cuyahoga Rivers, together with precipitation. Downstream navigation is ensured by the Welland Canal, which is part of the Saint Lawrence Seaway. The canal diverts water for ship passages from Port Colborne to Southe Catharines on Lake Ontario.

Lake Erie drains via the Niagara River, which makes its way to Lake Ontario. Niagara River provides hydroelectric power to Canada and the United States of America, spinning wind turbines near Niagara Falls at Lewiston, New York and Queenston, Ontario.

Erie has the shortest retention time of the Great Lakes, an average 2.6 years. This means that the lake water is renewed from upstream sources every three years. The lake’s water levels fluctuate with the seasons, depending on how much long-term precipitation the area receives. The lowest water levels usually occur in January or February, whilst levels are generally highest in June and July.

Short-term water level changes can also be observed on Lake Erie, which are usually caused by seiches. Levels can get particularly high when the southwesterly winds blow across the length of the lake towards the east when a storm occurs. During these occurrence water piles up at the eastern end of the lake, causing a denivelation between the eastern and western end of the lake. The record for such a denivelation was a 4.88 meter difference. These storm-driven seiches can cause serious damages along the coast.

Islands

At least 36 islands can be found on Lake Erie, most of which are located in the western part. Pelee Island is one of the largest, and can easily be accessed by ferry either from Lemington or Sandusky, Ohio. It is mostly famous for rare plants such as wild hyacinth, yellow horse gentian and prickly pear cactus and two endangered snakes, the blue racer and the Lake Erie water snake. Songbirds also migrate to the island in the spring, whilst butterfly monarchs use Pelee as a stopover in the fall. South Bass Island is mainly popular among youngsters, having many nightclubs and bars, especially in the Put-in-Bay area. Kelleys Island is mostly suitable for hiking, biking and lounging and viewing deep glacial grooves in the limestone bedrock.

Presque Island, the only one belonging to Pennsylvania, used to be an island but has turned into a sandy peninsula. Twenty islands belong to Ohio, including Ballast, Buckeye, Green, South Bass, Kelleys and Sugar islands. The Ohio Department of Natural Resources provides State Parks on five islands: Catawba, Kelleys, South Bass, Middle Bass and North Bass islands.

History

When Europeans first arrived to Lake Erie, several Iroquoian groups were found living on the lake’s eastern part, whilst the Erie tribe inhabited the southern, and the Neutrals lived in the northern part. The latter lived near Port Stanley and had a population of 800 in a small Indian village. The Europeans were the ones who called them Neutrals, since they refused to get into any kind of conflict with other tribes.

During the Beaver Wars in the mid-17th century, the two groups were conquered and assimilated by their hostile eastern neighbors. Decades after these wars the lands around the lake were claimed and used by the Iroquois for hunting. At the end of the 17th century their power dwindled and they were replaced by several other Native American tribes.

The first European who stepped foot on the Lake Erie precinct is said to be Louis Jolliet in 1669, although some speculate Etienne Brule was there sooner, in 1615. Erie was the last of the Great Lakes to be explored by European settlers, since the Iroquois were in conflict with the French and didn’t allow them near.

The Brit authorities in Canada were anxious about a possible expansion by the American settlers across Lake Erie, so Colonel Talbot initiated the Talbot Trail in 1809 to encourage the construction of settlements in the area, recruiting Irish and Scottish people. During the war of 1813 Oliver Hazard Perry captured a British fleet near Put-in-Bay. The two parties made a friendly agreement which resulted in keeping off all wars from the Great Lakes area.

Around 1850 the conquerors set up fisheries around the lake. During the pre-Civil War years railways were constructed all around the lakes. They even managed to circle the lake with railways by 1852. Soon after this maritime traffic became popular, but the lake was closed between December and April because of the ice that governed it during winter. Since slavery was abolished in Canada by 1833 but was still legal in the United States, Lake Erie often served as a crossing used by fugitive slaves in pursuit of freedom.

In 1885 the lake witness such harsh winds that its levels dropped substantially. There was a fear of overfishing by 1895, which is now considered a premature prophecy, since the fishery has outlived commercial and sport fishing, pollution and attacks of invasive species in the 20th century.

During the prohibition years between 1919 and 1933, big amounts of alcohol were crossed on Lake Erie. In the 20th century commercial fishing was prevalent, whilst the lake and its tributaries were used as sewers. By 1969 only three out of 62 beaches were rated completely safe for swimming.

Environment

Lake Erie is famous for producing lake effect snow when the first cold winds of winters appear over the warm waters. The effect occurs when the temperature difference between the lake’s surface and the colder air reaches the threshold of 10-13OC. Heavier instances of lake-effect snowfall can also happen when the cold air travels more than 100 kilometers over the large, unfrozen lake. When the wind blows from the west towards the east, the snowfall is usually more pronounced on the eastern part, near Erie and Buffalo. Buffalo gets 240 centimeters of snow yearly. This lake effect snowfall ends when the lake is completely frozen over. In the past few years the ice layer got so thick, it was possible to drive through the lake. The Lake Erie region is the 13th snowiest place in the United States.

Since strong winds govern the area, the lake currents usually shift the sediments located at the bottom of the lake, causing wickedly shifting sandbars, which, in turn, has caused a lot of shipwrecks in the area. Numerous plans have been made to construct wind turbines on Lake Erie. Steel Winds had a proposition for building 14 turbines on the edge of the lake in Buffalo. But since locals were concerned that the construction would hurt the bird and bat migration in the area, the project didn’t happen.

Lake Erie is responsible for a local microclimate, contributing to the importance of agriculture. The lake’s northern shore is home to Canada’s largest fruit and vegetable production. Canada’s tomato capital is located in the Leamington area. The region near Port Rowan in Ontario is famous for a number of special trees (such as tulip trees, flowering dogwood, sassafras and sour gums), and plenty of types of tropical plants (including cacti) which can’t usually be found so up north. The Ohio, Pennsylvania and New York region are important grape growing areas. Apple orchards can also be found from Ohio to New York.

An estimate 86-92 centimeters of water evaporates each year from the surface of the lake. Scientists affirm that this is mainly caused by climate change, leading to warmer temperatures and less thick ice during winter.  

The Great Lakes-Saint Lawrence River Basin Sustainable Water Resource Compact was launched in 2008 by the Great Lakes States and the Canadian province of Ontario. It was signed by President Bush and it aims to prevent the diversion of water from the five great lakes to distant states, and to set standards for water use and water conservation.

Ecologic Threats

The local ecosystem is complex, having many species in constant interaction. Because of human activities, pollution and maritime ship traffic, negative effects have been made on Lake Erie’s environment. Nutrient overloading from fertilizers, human and animal waste provide the lake with additional nitrogen and phosphorus, creating abundance in algal blooms in late summer.

In the 1960s the pollution became an extreme and increased problem. They tried to solve the problematic issue by reducing industrial and municipal waste, and improving farming techniques. This led to a slight recovery in the ‘70s. Though improved farming techniques were introduced, climate change and the change in the lakes ecosystem make phosphorous pollution more intractable.

In 1999 millions of mayflies were spotted heading towards Presque Isle on Erie. This was a positive sign, since these insects signaled that the lake is moving back to health, since they can only strive on clear water. In 2000 incidents of birds such as grebes, common and red-breasted mergansers, loons and diving ducks dying from botulism were reported. Shortly after these there was a decline in the local bird population, mainly because of farming practices, loss of habitats, soil erosion and toxic chemicals.

There were reports of the lake catching fire because of its highly intoxicated, oily surfaces. It took a massive effort to clean the Cuyahoga and new sewer lines were built to prevent such occurrences in the future. Water pollution limits were set and the environmental regulation of the ‘70s began to show a great increase in water quality and the return of economically important fish to the lake, such as the walleye.

Fishing on Lake Erie

Lake Erie is home to one of the World’s largest commercial fisheries. It has the richest fishing population among the Great Lakes, since its moderate temperature and plentiful supply of plankton offer prime conditions. Walleye fishing on the lake is said to be the best in the World. Besides walleye, there is also a world-class steelhead fishery on site. 1.5 million fish are caught by anglers on the lake each year.

The most frequently caught commercial fish until the 1950s was the blue walleye, but unfortunately it became extinct by the ’80s. The longest fish living in Lake Erie is the sturgeon, which can reach 3 meters in length and 136 kilograms. Brown trout and rainbow trout are some of the non-native species, whilst rainbow smelt, alewife, white perch and common carp are the non-indigenous fish of Lake Erie. Steelhead walleye, smallmouth bass, perch, trout and salmon can also be found in the lake.

Commercial fishing was hurt by bad economy and government regulations regarding catch sizes. Although commercial fishing was once popular, it has witnessed a decline, whilst sport fishing still remained popular. Ice fishing is also frequented during the winter, although it has its risks during strong storms.

The Lake Erie water snake is unfortunately on the threatened list and soon might even become endangered. This would cause problems, since the snake is helpful for keeping the population of goby fish in check. The Asian carp serves as a threat to the lake’s ecosystem, if it reentered, it would affect the other fish in a negative way. The snakehead fish is also a concern. If it enters the Great Lakes, it could declimate the aquatic food chain. The bloody read shrimp is similarly considered a threat, since it might harm the fish population and even promote algae blooms. There are an estimate 180 invasive species in the lake, which include zebra and quagga mussels, as well as grass carp. On the contrary, the introduction of the Pacific salmon would be beneficial for the lake’s aquatic ecosystem.

Uses of Lake Erie

In the 19th century ships entered the Buffalo River and travelled the Erie Canal towards Albany, then south to New York City along the Hudson River. The lake is generally home to heavy maritime traffic except for the winter months from January to March, when the thick ice layer prevents ships from safe travel. Of the Great Lakes, the ship traffic is highest at Erie, but is also the roughest, since it is home to the most shipwrecks. Ferry boats operate in numerous places, offering transport from one coastal city to another.

The five lakes are connected through a designated scenic road system, the Great Lakes Circle Tour, offering spectacular views. Drivers can even get from the United States to the Canadian Fort Erie over the Peace Bridge. Since the border of Canada and the United States is largely uncontrolled, it is possible for people to cross undetected from one country to another by boat.

Lake Erie is the most exposed to the effects of urbanization and agriculture. Its surrounding fertile soils mean that the area is intensively farmed and irrigated. 17 metropolitan areas with populations of 50 000 inhabitants each are located within the lake basin.

Tourism and Recreation

Since Lake Erie is so big, it also offers plenty of leisure activities for tourists and locals alike. Because the lake serves as the final resting piece of thousands of wrecked ships, it is one of the prime spots for diving in the country. Since temperatures can drop 17OC, the use of a wetsuit is recommended. The wrecks are in a very good condition because of the cold and the salt-free waters. Just remember to be respectful and don’t take any artifacts from the shipwrecks. Other popular watersports are kayaking in Put-in-Bay, as well as sailing, boating and canoeing. The Put-in-Bay offers spectacular views with steep cliffs and exotic wildlife.

The lake area’s numerous public parks also offer ideal conditions for a relaxing day. A wildlife resort was established in 1991 in Western Pennsylvania in the township of Springfield, offering hiking trails, cross-country skiing opportunities, beach walks and prime fishing spots. Ontario’s Long Point Provincial Park is a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve and is a stopover for rare migrating birds. The Sand Hill Park in Ontario, East of Port Burnwell has 140 meters high sand dunes with great views over Lake Erie.  Crystal Beach Park on the Eastern is home to lovely, gently sloping beaches, perfect for sun lovers and bathers.

Sterling State Park in Southern Michigan has plenty of campgrounds, hiking, biking, fishing, swimming, picnicking and sunbathing opportunities. Presque Isle State Park has endless outdoor recreational activities, sandy beaches and is Pennsylvania’s top vacation spot.

Waldameer Park and Water World is one of the oldest amusement parks in the country, still a top spot for families today. Presque Isle Downs Casino is the ideal place for gambling and racetracking. Erie Zoo and Botanical Gardens house more than 400 animals from 200 different species. The coastline is dotted by lighthouses, offering a pretty sight in front of the lake. There is a special lighthouse off the coast of Cleveland, beset with cold lake winter spray that attracts visitors with its unusual artistic icy shape.

An abundance of vineyards await visitors along the coast of Lake Erie, including on Pelee Island, which makes different types of wines, including pinot noirs, chardonnays and Rieslings. Plenty of summer rentals as well as hotels and campgrounds serve as accommodation for tourists. Some pleasure boat operators offer dinner cruises in the Cleveland area, on the Cuyahoga River and on Lake Erie. A few spas are set to pamper their guests at Kelleys Island and Sandusky. Huron, Sandusky, and Oak Harbor offer quality golf courses for golf enthusiasts.

Lake Erie Fish Species

Bass
Smallmouth bass
Steelhead trout
Perch
Walleye
Salmon
Yellow perch