Lake Erie facts for kids

Kids Encyclopedia Facts
The Great Lakes, with Lake Erie highlighted in darker blue
The Great Lakes, with Lake Erie highlighted in darker blue
Location North America
Group Great Lakes
Primary  inflows Detroit River
Primary  outflows Niagara River
Welland Canal
Basin  countries Canada
United States
Max. length 241 mi (388 km)
Max. width 57 mi (92 km)
Surface area 9,910 sq mi (25,667 km2)
Average depth 62 ft (19 m)
Max. depth 210 ft (64 m)
Water volume 116 cu mi (480 km3)
Residence time 2.6 years
Shore  length1 799 mi (1,286 km) plus 72 mi (116 km) for islands
Surface  elevation 569 ft (173 m)
Islands 24+ (see list)
Settlements Buffalo, New York
Erie, Pennsylvania
Toledo, Ohio
Cleveland, Ohio
1 Shore length is not a well-defined measure.
Lake Erie looking southward
From a high bluff near Leamington, Ontario

Lake Erie (/ˈɪəri/; French: Lac Érié) is the fourth-largest lake (by surface area) of the five Great Lakes in North America, and the thirteenth-largest globally if measured in terms of surface area. It is the southernmost, shallowest, and smallest by volume of the Great Lakes and therefore also has the shortest average water residence time. At its deepest point Lake Erie is 210 feet (64 metres) deep. Lake Erie's northern shore is bounded by the Canadian province of Ontario, with the U.S. states of Ohio, Pennsylvania, and New York on its southern and easternmost shores and Michigan on the west. These jurisdictions divide the surface area of the lake by water boundaries. The lake was named by the Erie people, a Native Americans people who lived along its southern shore. That Iroquoian tribe called it "Erige" ("cat") because of its unpredictable and sometimes violently dangerous nature. It is a matter of conjecture whether the lake was named after the tribe, or if the tribe was called "Erie" because of its proximity to the lake.

Situated below Lake Huron, Erie's primary inlet is the Detroit River. The main natural outflow from the lake is via the Niagara River, which provides hydroelectric power to Canada and the U.S. as it spins huge turbines near Niagara Falls at Lewiston, New York and Queenston, Ontario. Some outflow occurs via the Welland Canal which diverts water for ship passages from Port Colborne, Ontario on Lake Erie, to St. Catharines on Lake Ontario, an elevation difference of 326 ft (99 m). Lake Erie's environmental health has been an ongoing concern for decades, with issues such as overfishing, pollution, algae blooms and eutrophication generating headlines.

Geography

Lake Erie NASA
False-color satellite image of Lake Erie in 2007
Lake Erie North Short photo D Ramey Logan
Lake Erie: North Shore in mid-December 2014.

Geographic features

See also: Lake Erie Basin

Lake Erie (42.2° N, 81.2W) has a mean elevation of 571 feet (174 m) above sea level. It has a surface area of 9,990 square miles (25,874 km2) with a length of 241 statute miles (388 km; 209 nmi) and breadth of 57 statute miles (92 km; 50 nmi) at its widest points.

It is the shallowest of the Great Lakes with an average depth of 10 fathoms 3 feet (62 ft; 19 m) and a maximum depth of 35 fathoms (210 ft; 64 m) For comparison, Lake Superior has an average depth of 80 fathoms 3 feet (483 ft; 147 m), a volume of 2,900 cubic miles (12,000 km3) and shoreline of 2,726 statute miles (4,385 km). Because it is the shallowest, it is also the warmest of the Great Lakes, and in 1999 this almost became a problem for two nuclear power plants which require cool lake water to keep their reactors cool. The warm summer of 1999 caused lake temperatures to come close to the 85 °F (29 °C) limit necessary to keep the plants cool. Also because of its shallowness, and in spite of being the warmest lake in the summer, it is also the first to freeze in the winter. The shallowest section of Lake Erie is the western basin where depths average only 25 to 30 feet (7.6 to 9.1 m); as a result, "the slightest breeze can kick up lively waves," according to a New York Times reporter in 2004. The "waves build very quickly", according to other accounts. Sometimes fierce waves springing up unexpectedly have led to dramatic rescues; in one instance, a Cleveland resident trying to measure the dock near his house became trapped but was rescued by a fire department diver from Avon Lake, Ohio:

In a tug of war against the waves, the two were finally hauled out by rope. After being trapped for an hour-and-a-half, Baker was back on dry land, exhausted and battered but alive.

—Tatiana Morales, CBS News, 2004
Near the Whirlpool, Niagara Gorge
The Niagara River empties Lake Erie into Lake Ontario. This water has just passed over Niagara Falls.

This area is also known as the "thunderstorm capital of Canada" with "breathtaking" lightning displays. Lake Erie is primarily fed by the Detroit River (from Lake Huron and Lake St. Clair) and drains via the Niagara River and Niagara Falls into Lake Ontario. Navigation downstream is provided by the Welland Canal, part of the Saint Lawrence Seaway. Other major contributors to Lake Erie include the Grand River, the Huron River, the Maumee River, the Sandusky River, the Buffalo River, and the Cuyahoga River. The drainage basin covers 30,140 square miles (78,100 km2).

Point Pelee National Park, the southernmost point of the Canadian mainland, is located on a peninsula extending into the lake. Several islands are found in the western end of the lake; these belong to Ohio except for Pelee Island and eight neighboring islands, which are part of Ontario.

Major cities along Lake Erie include Buffalo; Erie, Pennsylvania; Toledo, Ohio; and Cleveland, Ohio.

Bass Islands map
Partial map of the Lake Erie Islands

Islands

See also: Lake Erie Islands

Islands tend to be located in the western side of the lake and total 31 in number (13 in Canada, 18 in the U.S.). The island-village of Put-in-Bay on South Bass Island attracts young crowds who sometimes wear "red bucket hats" and are prone to "break off cartwheels in the park" and general merriment. Kelleys Island was depicted by the Chicago Tribune as having charms that were "more subtle" than Put-in-Bay, and offers amenities such as beach lounging, hiking, biking and "marveling at deep glacial grooves left in limestone." Pelee Island is the largest of Erie's islands, accessible by ferry from Leamington, Ontario and Sandusky, Ohio. The island has a "fragile and unique ecosystem" with plants rarely found in Canada, such as wild hyacinth, yellow horse gentian (Triosteum angustifolium) and prickly pear cactus, as well as two endangered snakes, the blue racer and the Lake Erie water snake. Songbirds migrate to Pelee in spring, and monarch butterflies stop over during the fall.

Water levels

Lake Erie has a lake retention time of 2.6 years, the shortest of all the Great Lakes. The lake's surface area is 9,910 square miles (25,667 km2). Lake Erie's water level fluctuates with the seasons as in the other Great Lakes. Generally, the lowest levels are in January and February, and the highest in June or July, although there have been exceptions. The average yearly level varies depending on long-term precipitation. Short-term level changes are often caused by seiches that are particularly high when southwesterly winds blow across the length of the lake during storms. These cause water to pile up at the eastern end of the lake. Storm-driven seiches can cause damage onshore. During one storm in November 2003, the water level at Buffalo rose by 7 feet (2.1 m) with waves of 10–15 feet (3–4.5 m) for a rise of 22 feet (6.7 m). Meanwhile, at the western end of the lake, Toledo experienced a similar drop in water level. Lake water is used for drinking purposes.

  • Historic High Water. The lake fluctuates from month to month with the highest lake levels in June and July. In the summer of 1986, Lake Erie reached its highest level at 5.08 feet (1.55 m) above datum. The high water records were set from 1986 (April) through January 1987. Levels ranged from 4.33 to 5.08 feet (1.32–1.55 m) above Chart Datum.
  • Historic Low Water. Lake Erie experiences its lowest levels in the winter. In the winter of 1934, Lake Erie reached its lowest level at 1.5 feet (0.46 m) below datum. Monthly low water records were set from July 1934 through June 1935. During this twelve-month period water levels ranged from 1.5 feet (0.46 m) to the Chart Datum.

Geology

Lake Erie Land's End
Sandy bluffs along Lake Erie in Erie County, Pennsylvania
Lake Erie and Lake Saint Clair bathymetry map
Lake Erie and Lake Saint Clair bathymetric map. The deepest point is marked with "×".

Lake Erie was carved out by glacier ice, and in its current form is less than 4,000 years old, which is a short span in geological terms. Before this, the land on which the lake now sits went through several complex stages. A large lowland basin formed over two million years ago as a result of an eastern flowing river that existed well before the Pleistocene ice ages. This ancient drainage system was destroyed by the first major glacier in the area, while it deepened and enlarged the lowland areas, allowing water to settle and form a lake. The glaciers were able to carve away more land on the eastern side of the lowland because the bedrock is made of shale which is softer than the carbonate rocks of dolomite and limestone on the western side. Thus, the eastern and central basins of the modern lake are much deeper than the western basin, which averages only 25 feet (7.6 m) deep and is rich in nutrients and fish. Lake Erie is the shallowest of the Great Lakes because the ice was relatively thin and lacked erosion power when it reached that far south, according to one view.

As many as three glaciers advanced and retreated over the land causing temporary lakes to form in the time periods in between each of them. Because each lake had a different volume of water their shorelines rested at differing elevations. The last of these lakes to form, Lake Warren, existed between about 13,000 and 12,000 years ago. It was deeper than the current Lake Erie, so its shoreline existed about eight miles (13 km) inland from the modern one. The shorelines of these lakes left behind high ground sand ridges that cut through swamps and were used as trails for Indians and later, pioneers. These trails became primitive roads which were eventually paved. U.S. Route 30 west of Delphos and U.S. Route 20 west of Norwalk and east of Cleveland were formed in this manner. One can still see some of these ancient sand dunes that formed in the Oak Openings Region in Northwestern Ohio. There, the sandy dry lake bed soil was not enough to support large trees with the exception of a few species of oaks, forming a rare oak savanna.

History

Native Americans

At the time of European contact, there were several groups of Iroquoian cultures living around the shores of the eastern end of the lake. The Erie tribe (from whom the lake takes its name) lived along the southern edge, while the Neutrals (also known as Attawandaron) lived along the northern shore. Near Port Stanley, there is an Indian village dating from the 16th century known as the Southwold Earthworks where as many as 800 Neutral Indians once lived; the archaeological remains include double earth walls winding around the grass-covered perimeter. Europeans named the tribe the Neutral Indians since these people refused to fight with other tribes. Both tribes were conquered and assimilated by their hostile eastern neighbors, the Iroquois Confederacy between AD 1651 and 1657, in what is referred to as part of the Beaver Wars.

For decades after those wars, the land around eastern Lake Erie was claimed and utilized by the Iroquois as a hunting ground. As the power of the Iroquois waned during the last quarter of the 17th century, several other, mainly Anishinaabe Native American tribes, displaced them from the territories they claimed on the north shore of the lake. There was a legend of an Indian woman named Huldah who, despairing over her lost British lover, hurled herself from a high rock from Pelee Island.

European exploration and settlement

Great Lakes Steamship Walk-in-the-Water
The steamship Walk in Water, built in Buffalo, was the first steamship on Lake Erie. Picture circa 1816.

In 1669, the Frenchman Louis Jolliet was the first documented European to sight Lake Erie, although there is speculation that Étienne Brûlé may have come across it in 1615. Lake Erie was the last of the Great Lakes to be explored by Europeans, since the Iroquois who occupied the Niagara River area were in conflict with the French, and they did not allow explorers or traders to pass through. Explorers followed rivers out of Lake Ontario and portaged directly into Lake Huron. British authorities in Canada were nervous about possible expansion by American settlers across Lake Erie, so Colonel Talbot developed the Talbot Trail in 1809 as a way to stimulate settlement to the area; Talbot recruited settlers from Ireland and Scotland and there are numerous places named after him, such as Port Talbot and the Talbot River and Talbotville in southern Ontario.

Battle erie
Commander Perry's message after the Battle of Lake Erie: "We have met the enemy and they are ours." This 1865 painting by William H. Powell shows Perry transferring to a different ship during the battle.

During the War of 1812, Oliver Hazard Perry captured an entire British fleet in 1813 near Put-in-Bay, Ohio, despite having inferior numbers. American soldiers swept through the Ontario area around Port Rowan burning towns and villages, but spared a gristmill owned by a Canadian mason named John Backhouse, according to one report. Generally, however, despite the two exceptions being the American Revolutionary War and the War of 1812 which involved conflicts between the U.S. and Great Britain, relations between the U.S. and Canada have been remarkably friendly with an "unfortified boundary" and an agreement "that has kept all fleets of war off the Great Lakes."

In 1837, rebellions broke about between Canadian settlers and the British Colonial government, primarily over political reforms and land allocation issues. Some of the rebels stationed themselves in the U.S. and crossed the ice from Sandusky Bay to Pelee Island wearing "tattered overcoats and worn-out boots", and carrying muskets, pitchforks, and swords, but the islanders had already fled. Later, there was a battle on the ice with the Royal 32nd regiment, with the rebels being driven to retreat.

Brig Niagara (Lorain, Ohio)
At an Ohio history festival, the 19th-century style brig warship USS Niagara passes the Lorain lighthouse.

Settlers established commercial fisheries on the north coast of the lake around the 1850s. An important business was fishing. In the pre-Civil War years, railways sprouted everywhere, and around 1852 there were railways circling the lake. Maritime traffic picked up, although the lake was usually closed because of ice from December to early April, and ships had to wait for the ice to clear before proceeding. Since slavery had been abolished in Canada in 1833, but was still legal in southern states of the U.S., a Lake Erie crossing was sometimes required for fugitive slaves seeking freedom:

When Kentucky fugitive Lewis Clarke arrived in Cleveland, he had no idea how to find Canada. "I went out to the shore of the lake again and again, to try and see the other side, but I could see no hill, mountain, nor city of the asylum I sought," he once told an interviewer. "I was afraid to inquire where (Canada) was, lest it would betray such a degree of ignorance as to excite suspicion at once." Many fugitives also had to overcome fears instilled by their former masters...

—Chris Lackner in the Ottawa Citizen, 2006

Merchant shippers lacked modern radar and weather forecasting, so vessels were often caught up in intense gales:

A violent gale is blowing on Lake Erie ... The schooner Stranger came in this morning and reports seeing a vessel about 12 miles [19 km] up, 2 miles [3.2 km] from the Canada shore, with three men clinging to the masts, which alone were visible above the water–heard their cries and screams...

The New York Times, October 1853

There were reports of disasters usually from sea captains passing information to reporters; in 1868, the captain of the Grace Whitney saw a sunken vessel "three men clinging to the masthead" but he could not help because of the gale and high seas.

A balloonist named John Steiner of Philadelphia made an ambitious trip across the lake in 1857. He was described in The New York Times as an eronaut or aeronaut; powered boats were called propellers; and fast was deemed railroad speed. Here's an account of the day-long voyage over the lake:

He arose to the height of about three miles, and started off at a slow but steady rate ... The lake could be seen from one end to the other nearly ... At one time Mr. Steiner counted 38 sail vessels, all in sight, and far below him. The hands on board several of the vessels saw him, and rightly apprehending that he was an aeronaut, cheered him heartily ... He neared the Canada shore a little below Long Point ... he was accordingly driven towards Buffalo ... Night was drawing on and it became apparent that he could not, with this current, get away from the water before dark, and after nightfall it would not be safe to come down. Seeing a propeller ... the Mary Stewart ... He first struck the water about 25 miles below Long Point ... During this time Mr. Steiner says he thinks his balloon bounded from the water at least twenty times. It would strike and then rebound, like a ball, going into the air from twenty to fifty feet, and still rushing down the lake at railroad speed ... Mr. Steiner then abandoned the balloon, leaping into the water and swimming towards the boat, which speedily reached him...

The New York Times, July 23, 1857

In 1885, lake winds were so strong that water levels dropped substantially, sometimes by as much as two feet, so that at ports such as Toledo, watercraft could not load coal or depart the port.

During the history of the lake as a fishery, there has been marked battling by opposing interest groups. Here's an 1895 newspaper account in which critics of commercial fishing issued dire predictions and calling for government action to solve the problem:

The preservation of the fisheries of Lake Erie has become a serious problem to all who have given it close attention ... the fisheries are being exhausted by the wasteful methods which are now in vogue ... it is still the custom of the pound fishermen about Sandusky to take fish of all sizes, and if they are too small to be marketable they are turned over to a fertilizer factory. If left undisturbed for two or three years more, these little fish would be a very valuable product ...

Put-in-Bay view from the Peace Memorial
View from the Peace Memorial at Put-in-Bay, Ohio

Predictions of the lake being over-fished in 1895 were premature, since the fishery has survived commercial and sport fishing, pollution in the middle of the 20th century, invasive species and other ailments, but state and provincial governments, as well as national governments, have played a greater role as time went by. Business boomed; in 1901, the Carnegie Company proposed building a new harbor near Erie in Elk Creek to accommodate shipments from its tube-plant site nearby. In 1913, a memorial to Commodore Perry was built on Put-in-Bay island featuring a Doric column.

During the Prohibition years from 1919 to 1933, a "great deal of alcohol crossed Erie" along with "mobster corpses" dumped into the Detroit River which sometimes washed up on the beaches of Pelee Island. According to one account, Al Capone hid a "fortune" in the walls of the Middle Island luxury club, but no money was found in it as of 2007 when the building no longer stood. The club had a basement casino with poker tables and slot machines.

During the 20th century, commercial fishing was prevalent, but so was the boom in manufacturing industry around the lake, and often rivers and streams were used as sewers to flush untreated sewage which ended up in the lake. Sometimes poorly constructed sanitary systems meant that when old mains broke, raw sewage would spill directly into the Cuyahoga and into the lake. A report in Time magazine in 1969 described the lake as a "gigantic cesspool" since only three of 62 beaches were rated "completely safe for swimming".

By 1975 the popular commercial fish blue pike had been declared extinct, although the declaration may have been premature. By the 1980s, there were about 130 fishing vessels with about 3,000 workers, but commercial fishing was declining rapidly, particularly from the American side.

Great Lakes Compact

In 2005, the Great Lakes States of Ohio, Michigan, New York, Pennsylvania, Illinois, Indiana, Wisconsin, Minnesota and the Canadian Provinces of Ontario and Quebec endorsed the Great Lakes-St. Lawrence River Basin Sustainable Water Resources Compact (Compact). The Compact was signed into law by President George W. Bush in September 2008. An international water rights policy overseen by the Great Lakes Commission, the Compact aims to prevent diversion of water from Great Lakes to distant states, as well as to set standards for use and conservation. It had support from both political parties, including former United States Senator George Voinovich (R-OH) and former Governor Jennifer Granholm (D-MI), but is not popular in the southwestern states due to frequent drought conditions and water scarcity.

Lake environment

Weather

Lake Erie in winter

LakeEffectSnow
Cold air travels over warm lake water. The air becomes warmer, moister, less dense, so that it rises; when it passes over land, the reduced airspace causes the air to "pile up" resulting in "frictional convergence." This lifts the air even further to where it cools, turning into droplets or snowflakes. The result is enhanced snowfall.
Erie Michigan 1953 tornado
Tornadoes rarely happen around the immediate Great Lakes region, although this one happened in 1953 in Erie, Michigan near Lake Erie.
LakeErie-1
Lake Erie in winter

Like the other Great Lakes, Erie produces lake effect snow when the first cold winds of winter pass over the warm waters. When the difference in temperature between the relatively warm surface water and the colder air reaches a threshold value of 18 to 23 degrees Fahrenheit (10 to 13 degrees Celsius), then "lake-effect snow becomes possible:"

As cold air flows over the warm water, the lake warms and moistens the air. Since warm, moist air is less dense than cold air, the heated air rises. Rising air cools and water vapor condenses into cloud droplets ... the efficiency of snow production increases when the wind pushes the clouds over land. Friction with the ground causes air to pile up. This frictional convergence creates lift and enhances snowfall.

—Bob Swanson and Adrienne Lewis of USA Today, 2008

Heavy lake-effect snowfalls can occur when cold air travels 60 miles (97 km) or longer over a large unfrozen lake. Lake-effect snow makes Buffalo and Erie the eleventh and thirteenth snowiest places in the entire United States respectively, according to data collected from the National Climatic Data Center. Since winds blow primarily west–to–east along the main axis of the lake, lake effect snow effects are more pronounced on the eastern parts of the lake such as cities such as Buffalo and Erie. Buffalo typically gets 95 inches (240 cm) of snow each winter, and sometimes ten feet (3 m) of snow; the snowiest city is Syracuse, New York, which can receive heavy snowfall from both the lake effect process and large coastal cyclones. A storm around Christmas in 2001 pounded Buffalo with seven feet of snow.

Frozen Lake Erie
Lake Erie in winter

The lake effect ends or its effect is reduced, however, when the lake freezes over. In January 2011, for example, residents of Cleveland were glad when Lake Erie was "90 percent frozen" since it meant that the area had "made it over the hump" in terms of enduring repeated snowfalls which required much shoveling. Being the shallowest of the Great Lakes, it is the most likely to freeze and frequently does. On February 16, 2010, meteorologists reported that the lake had frozen over marking the first time the lake had completely frozen over since the winter of 1995–1996. In contrast, Lake Michigan has never completely frozen over since the warmer and deeper portion is in the south, although it came close to being totally frozen during three harsh winters over the past century. When the lake freezes over, this usually shuts down the lake effect snowfall. In past years, lake ice was so thick that it was possible to drive over it or go sailing on iceboats; but in the first decade of the 21st century, the ice has not been thick enough for such activities. Many lake residents take advantage of the ice and travel; some drive to Canada and back. Here's one account of ice life around Put-in-Bay:

The first ice usually forms in late November, and by January it locks into place. For islanders in the Western Basin, it is the equivalent of summer vacation ... Once the lake freezes, islanders organize impromptu ice rallies. Families gather to drink hot wine and race all-terrain vehicles across the lake. They also race iceboats, which resemble sailboats on skates ... Many people drive to other islands for dinner with friends. They ride in cars with the roofs and doors chopped off so they can escape if the vehicles fall through the ice. Islanders stab evergreen trees into the ice every 50 yards to mark a route ... Even in the coldest winters, there are dangerous patches of thin ice. The cracks are so predictable that the Put-in-Bay Ice Yacht Club prints them on a map ... On a normal winter day, the ice is dotted with 2,000 fishing shanties.

—Christopher Maag in The New York Times, 2004

Windy conditions

Strong winds have caused lake currents to shift sediment on the bottom, leading to "wickedly shifting sandbars" which have been a source of shipwrecks. But winds can have a peaceful purpose as well; there have been proposals to place electricity–producing wind turbines in windy and shallow points in the lake and along the coast, both in the United States and Canada. In 2010, there were plans for GE to develop five wind turbines to generate 20 megawatts of power by 2012 with plans to generate 1,000 megawatts by 2020; one proposal called for "gearless turbines" with 176-foot long blades helped along with magnets. A nonprofit development group near Cleveland was developing plans to construct hundreds of turbines in the lake. A former steel mill site on the eastern edge of the lake in Buffalo, NY has been redeveloped as an urban wind farm in 2007. Known as Steel Winds, the project currently houses 14 turbines capable of generating up to 35 megawatts of electricity. A plan by Samsung to build an offshore wind farm on the north shore of the lake, from Port Maitland to Nanticoke for a distance of 15.5 mi (24.9 km), but the plan has been met with opposition from residents for a number of reasons. Canadians near Leamington and Kingsville have organized protest groups to thwart attempts to bring wind turbines to the lake; reasons against the turbines include spoiling lake views as well as possible adverse effects regarding drinking water and commercial fishing. Plans to install turbines in Pigeon Bay, south of Leamington were met with opposition as well. The notion that bird and bat migration may be hurt by the wind turbines has been used to argue against the wind turbines; a reporter in The Globe and Mail wrote "Given the tendency of turbines to make mincemeat of things airborne, it doesn’t require great imagination to figure out what would happen."

They loom like gigantic aliens invading the farmers’ fields. There are 66 of these creatures, each about as tall as a 25-storey building with a face comprised of three enormous whiskers rotating 11 to 20 times per minute. Standing amidst the wind turbines of Erie Shore Wind Farm, one feels like a doomed character in a sci-fi movie caught in the deathly still moment just before disaster strikes.

—reporter Rebecca Field Jager in the Weekend Post, 2010

Microclimates

The lake is also responsible for microclimates that are important to agriculture. Along its north shore is one of the richest areas of Canada's fruit and vegetable production; this southernmost tip, particularly in the area around Leamington, is known as Canada's "tomato capital". The area around Port Rowan in Ontario has special trees which grow because of the "tempering effect of the lake", and species include tulip trees, flowering dogwood, sassafras and sour gum. In this area there are many greenhouses which produce a "variety of tropical plants rarely cultivated so far north", including some species of cacti, because of the lake's tempering effect. Along the southeastern shore in Ohio, Pennsylvania, and New York is an important grape growing region, as are the islands in the lake. Apple orchards are abundant in northeast Ohio to western New York.

Long term weather patterns

According to one estimate, 34 to 36 inches of water evaporates each year from the surface of the lake, which allows for rainfall and other precipitation in surrounding areas. There are conflicting reports about the overall effect of global warming on the Great Lakes region

Ecosystems

Avon Lake power plant
A coal-fired power plant in Avon Lake, Ohio located on Lake Erie

Lake Erie has a complex ecosystem with many species in constant interaction. Human activity, such as pollution and maritime ship traffic, can affect this environment in numerous ways. The interactions between the new species can sometimes have beneficial effects, as well as harmful effects. Some introductions have been seen as beneficial such as the introduction of Pacific salmon. Occasionally there have been mass die-offs of certain species of fish, sometimes for reasons unknown, such as many numbers of rainbow smelt in May 2010.

Invasive species

The lake has been plagued with a number of invasive species, including zebra and quagga mussels, the goby and the grass carp. One estimate was that there have been 180 invasive species in the Great Lakes, some having traveled in ballast water in international ships. Zebra mussels and gobies have been credited with the increased population and size of smallmouth bass in Lake Erie. In 2008 there were concerns that the "newest invader swarming in the Great Lakes", which was the "bloody-red shrimp", might harm fish populations and promote algae blooms.

Environmentalists and biologists study lake conditions via installations such as the Franz Theodore Stone Laboratory on Gibraltar Island. The lab, which was established in 1895, is the oldest biological field station in the United States. Stone Laboratory was donated to the Ohio State University by Julius Stone in 1925 as part of the university's Ohio Sea Grant College Program. In addition, the Great Lakes Institute of the University of Windsor has experts who study issues such as lake sediment pollution and the flow of contaminants such as phosphorus.

A list of the common invasive species in Lake Erie include: Zebra Mussels, Quagga Mussels, Round Gobies, Spiny European Water Fleas, Fishhook Water Fleas, the Sea Lamprey, and White Perch. The invasive plant species that fill Lake Erie consist mainly of Eurasian Milfoil, and Purple Loosestrife,

Eutrophication and the infamous dead zone

HAZARDOUS WALK OFF HUNTINGTON BEACH ON LAKE ERIE THROUGH ALGAE AND UPROOTED TREES. HIGH WATER AND UNCONTROLLED... - NARA - 550242
A 1973 photo from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency showing beach erosion, algae, and uprooted trees as a result of environmental issues
Toxic Algae Bloom in Lake Erie
The green scum shown in this image taken in October 2011 is the worst algae bloom Lake Erie has experienced in decades.

An ongoing concern is that "nutrient overloading from fertilizers, human and animal waste", known as eutrophication, in which additional nitrogen and phosphorus enter the lake, will cause plant life to "run wild and multiply like crazy". Since there are fewer wetlands, which are like "Nature's kidneys" by filtering nutrients, as well as greater "channelization of waterways", nutrients in water can cause algal blooms to sprout as well as "low-oxygen dead zones" in a complex interaction of natural forces. As of the 2010s much of the phosphorus in the lake comes from fertilizer applied to no-till soybean and corn fields but washed into streams by heavy rains. The algal blooms result from growth of Microcystis, a toxic blue-green algae that the zebra mussels which infest the lake don't eat.

There periodically is a dead zone, or region of low oxygen, in the lake whose exact location varies. Scientists from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration have been studying the lake's blue-green algae blooms, and trying to find ways to predict when they are spreading or where they might hit landfall; typically the blooms arrive late each summer. This problem was extreme in the mid and late 1960's and the Lake Erie Wastewater Management Study (LEWMS) conducted by the Buffalo District of the US Army Corps of Engineers determined that the eutrophication was due to "point sources" such as industrial outfalls and municipal sanitary and storm sewer outfalls, as well as "diffuse sources", such as overland runoff from farm and forest land. All these sources contribute nutrients, primarily phosphorus, to the lake. Growth of organisms in the lake is then spiked to the point that oxygen levels are depleted. LEWMS made recommendations for reducing point source outflows, as well as reducing farm contributions of phosphorus by changing fertilizer usage, employing "no-till" farming and other conservative practices. Many industrial and municipal sources have since then been greatly reduced. The improved farming practices, which were voluntary, were followed for a while, resulting in remarkable recovery of the lake in the 1970s.

Unfortunately, the conservative practices are not monitored, and have not been kept up. One recent account suggests that the seasonal algae blooms in Lake Erie were possibly caused by "runoff from cities, fertilizers, zebra mussels, and livestock near water." A second report focuses on the zebra mussels as being the cause of "big oxygen-poor dead zones" since they filter so much sediment that they have resulted in the growth of algae. One report suggests the oxygen-poor zone began about 1993 in the lake's central basin and becomes more pronounced during summer months, but it is somewhat of a mystery why this happens. Some scientists speculate that the dead zone is a naturally occurring phenomenon. Another report cited Ohio's Maumee River as the main source of polluted runoff of phosphorus from industries, municipalities, tributaries and agriculture, and in 2008, satellite images showed the algal bloom heading toward Pelee Island, and possibly heading to Lake Erie's central basin. There have been two-year $2 million studies trying to understand the "growing zone" which was described as a "10-foot-thick layer of cold water at the bottom", 55 feet (17 m) in one area, which stretches "100 miles across the lake's center". It kills fish and microscopic creatures of the lake's food chain and fouls the water, and may cause further problems in later years for sport and commercial fishing.

Algae blooms continued in early 2013 but new farming techniques, climate change and even a change in Lake Erie’s ecosystem make phosphorus pollution more intractable.

Snakes

Nerodia sipedonPCSL02111B1
The northern watersnake (Nerodia sipedon) is nonvenomous.

The Lake Erie water snake, a subspecies of the northern water snake (Nerodia sipedon), lives in the vicinity of Ohio's Put-in-Bay Harbor, and had been put on the threatened species list. A threatened species is one which may soon become an endangered species. By 2010, the water snake population was over 12,000 snakes. While they have a non-venomous bite, they are a key predator in the lake's aquatic ecosystem since they feed on mudpuppies and walleye and smallmouth bass. The snake was helpful in keeping the population of goby fish in check. They mate from late May through early June and can be found in large mating balls with one female bunched with several males.

Asian carp

There is a concern that Asian carp might enter the Great Lakes region and alter the ecosystem negatively. They have been described as "greedy giants that suck plankton from the water with the brutal efficiency of vacuum cleaners" and scientists worry that they may unravel the "aquatic food web" by crowding out other species.

Snakehead fish

Northern snakehead
Snakehead fish

There was concern in 2007 that snakehead fish could get into the Great Lakes area. Officials warn that if the fish invades, it could "decimate the aquatic food chain". A YouTube video mentioned in a newspaper account has a man claiming that the fish could "bite your entire hand off". The fish can reach 5 feet 11 inches (1.8 m) in length and "survive out of water for four days" and "has a mouth full of teeth that can shear fish in half" and can "eat ducks and small mammals." It should be noted however the snakehead fish can not live in a lake that has completely frozen over. They must come to the surface to breathe via their swim bladder.

It gets such huge sizes. It moves over land and it breathes air and it will eat anything it comes into contact with. That's what freaks people out about it, to see a fish moving across land gulping air.

—about the Snakehead fish, 2007, CanWest News Service

Agriculture and life around the lake

In 1999, Doppler radar weather sensors detected millions of mayflies heading for Presque Isle in blue and green splotches on the radar in clouds measuring ten miles (16 km) long. These insects were a sign of Lake Erie's move back to health, since the mayflies require clean water to thrive. Biologist Masteller of Penn State Erie declared the bugs to be a "nice nuisance" since they signified the lake's return to health after forty years of absence. Each is an inch and a half long; the three main species of mayflies are Ephemera simulans, Hexagenia rigida and Hexagenia limbata. The insects mate over a 72-hour period from June through September; they fly in masses up to the shore, mate in the air, then females lay up to 8,000 eggs each over the water; the eggs sink back down and the cycle repeats. Sometimes the clouds of mayflies have caused power outages as well as causing roads to become slippery with squashed insects. Since zebra mussels filter extra nutrients from the lake, it allows the mayfly larvae to thrive.

Cygnus buccinator -Lake Erie, Michigan, USA-8 (1)
The trumpeter swan (Cygnus buccinator) on Lake Erie

There have been incidents of birds dying from botulism, in 2000, and in 2002. Birds affected included grebes, common and red-breasted mergansers, loons, diving ducks, ring-billed gulls and herring gulls. One account suggests that bird populations are in trouble, notably the woodland warbler, which had population declines around 60 percent in 2008. Possible causes for declines in bird populations are farming practices, loss of habitats, soil depletion and erosion, and toxic chemicals. In 2006, there were concerns of possible bird flu after two wild swans on the lake were found diseased, but it was learned that they did not contain the deadly H5N1 virus. There were sightings of a magnificent frigatebird, a tropical bird with a two-metre wingspan, over the lake in 2008.

Water quality issues and restoration

Lake Erie infamously became very polluted in the 1960s and 1970s as a result of the quantity of heavy industry situated in cities on its shores, with reports of bacteria-laden beaches and fish contaminated by industrial waste. In the 1970s, patches of the lake were declared dead because of industrial waste as well as sewage from runoffs; as The New York Times reporter Denny Lee wrote in 2004, "The lake, after all, is where the Rust Belt meets the water."

The water quality deteriorated partially due to increasing levels of the nutrient phosphorus in both the water and lake bottom sediments. The resultant high nitrogen levels in the water caused eutrophication, which resulted in algal blooms and algae masses and fish kills increasingly fouled the shoreline during this period. There were incidents of the oily surfaces of tributary rivers emptying into Lake Erie catching fire: in 1969, Cleveland's Cuyahoga River erupted in flames, chronicled in a Time magazine article which lamented a tendency to use rivers flowing through major cities as "convenient, free sewers"; the Detroit River caught fire on another occasion. The outlook was gloomy:

Each day, Detroit, Cleveland and 120 other municipalities fill Erie with 1.5 billion gallons of "inadequately treated wastes, including nitrates and phosphates ... These chemicals act as fertilizer for growths of algae that suck oxygen from the lower depths and rise to the surface as odoriferous green scum ... Commercial and game fish—blue pike, whitefish, sturgeon, northern pike—have nearly vanished, yielding the waters to trash fish that need less oxygen. Weeds proliferate, turning water frontage into swamp. In short, Lake Erie is in danger of dying by suffocation.

Time magazine, August 1969

These events embarrassed officials and spurred local officials, including Cleveland's director of public utilities, Ben Stefanski, to pursue a massive effort to "scrub the Cuyahoga"; the effort cost $100 million in bonds, according to one estimate. New sewer lines were built. Clevelanders approved a bond issue by 2 to 1 to seriously upgrade Cleveland's sewage system. Federal officials acted as well; the United States Congress passed the Clean Water Act of 1972. In that year, the United States and Canada established water pollution limits in an International Water Quality Agreement. The Cotps' LEWMS, mentioned above, was also instituted at that time. The controls were effective, but it took several decades to take effect; by 1999, there were signs that large numbers of mayflies were spotted on the lake after a forty-year absence, signalling a return to health.

The clearing of the water column is also partly due to the introduction and rapid spread of zebra mussels from Europe, which had the effect of covering "the basin floor like shag carpeting" with each creature filtering "a liter of fresh water a day," helping to restore the lake to a cleaner state. The 1972 Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement also significantly reduced the dumping and runoff of phosphorus into the lake. The lake has since become clean enough to allow sunlight to infiltrate its water and produce algae and sea weed, but a dead zone persists in the central Lake Erie Basin during the late summer. The United States Environmental Protection Agency has studied this cyclic phenomenon since 2005. There have been instances of beach closings at Presque Isle off the coast of northwestern Pennsylvania because of unexplained E. Coli contaminations, possibly caused by storm water overflows after heavy downpours.

CLEVELAND SKYLINE AND LAKE ERIE AT DAYBREAK - NARA - 550291
Daybreak with Cleveland skyline
Cleveland sunset
Sunset from Cleveland pier

Since the 1970s environmental regulation has led to a great increase in water quality and the return of economically important fish species such as walleye and other biological life. There was substantial evidence that the new controls had substantially reduced levels of DDT in the water by 1979. Cleanup efforts were described in 1979 as a notable environmental success story, suggesting that the cumulative effect of legislation, studies, and bans had reversed the effects of pollution:

The globs of oil, the multicolored industrial discharges, the flotsam from shoreline cities, the fecal and bacterial wastes are no longer dumped in the lakes in vast quantities.

Time magazine, 1979

Joint U.S.–Canadian agreements pushed 600 of 864 major industrial dischargers to meet requirements for keeping the water clean. One estimate was that $5 billion was spent to upgrade plants to treat sewage. The change toward cleaner water has been in a positive direction since the 1970s.

Other ecosystem related issues

There was a tentative exploratory plan to capture CO2, compress it to a liquid form, and pump it a half-mile (800 m) beneath Lake Erie's surface underneath the porous rock structure. According to chemical engineer Peter Douglas, there is sufficient storage space beneath Lake Erie to hold between 15 and 50 years of liquid CO2 emissions from the 4,000 megawatt Nanticoke coal plant. But there has been no substantial progress on this issue since 2007.

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