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Lake Erie on January 9, 2014
Lake Erie and the other Great Lakes.
|Primary inflows||Detroit River|
|Primary outflows||Niagara River|
|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|
|1 Shore length is not a well-defined measure.|
Lake Erie on January 9, 2014
Lake Erie and the other Great Lakes.
|Primary inflows||Detroit River|
|Primary outflows||Niagara River|
|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|
|1 Shore length is not a well-defined measure.|
Lake Erie (//; French: Lac Érié) is the fourth largest lake (by surface area) of the five Great Lakes in North America, and the tenth largest globally or twelfth 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. It is bounded by Ontario to the north, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and New York to the south, and Michigan to the west. The lake is named after the Erie tribe of Native Americans who lived along its southern shore. The outflow from the lake provides hydroelectric power to Canada and the U.S. as it spins huge turbines at Niagara Falls. The lake's environmental health has been an ongoing concern for decades, with issues such as overfishing, pollution and more recently algal blooms and eutrophication generating headlines.
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 9,910 square miles (25,667 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 (12,100 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.
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.
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 the lake include Buffalo, New York; Erie, Pennsylvania; Toledo, Ohio; Port Stanley, Ontario; Monroe, Michigan; Sandusky, Ohio; and Cleveland, Ohio. The drainage basin covers 30,140 square miles (78,000 km2).
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.
Lake Erie has a lake retention time of 2.6 years, the shortest of all the Great Lakes. This means that the lake water is renewed from upstream sources every three years. 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.
Lake Erie was carved out by glacier ice, and in its current form is less than 4,000 years old, a short time geologically speaking. Before this, the land on which the lake now sits has gone 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 at the same time deepening and enlarging the lowland 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 much softer than the carbonate rocks on the western side. Thus, the eastern side of the modern lake is much deeper than the western portion which averages only 25 feet (7.6 m) deep. Lake Erie is the shallowest of the Great Lakes because the ice was so thin and lacked erosion power when it reached that far south.
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.
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 A.D. 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.
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.
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.
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...
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 ...
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 3 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.
In 2005, the Great Lakes States of Ohio, Michigan, New York, Pennsylvania, Illinois, Indiana, Wisconsin, Minnesota and the Canadian Province of Ontario 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 has support from both political parties, including United States Senator George Voinovich (R-OH) and Governor Jennifer Granholm (D-MI), but is not popular in the southwestern states due to frequent drought conditions and water scarcity.
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 °F to 23 °F (10 °C to 13 °C), 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.
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 gets lake effect precipitation from Lake Ontario as well as Lake Erie. A storm around Christmas in 2001 pounded Buffalo with seven feet of snow.
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, 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.
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 miles (25 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.
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.
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, including Lake Erie. One account suggests that climate change is causing greater evaporation of lake water, leading to warmer temperatures as well as ice in winter which is less thick or nonexistent, fueling concerns that "Erie appears to be shrinking" and is the most likely candidate among the five Great Lakes to "turn into a festering mud puddle." In 2010, the Windsor Star reported that the lake experienced "record-breaking temperatures" reaching 81 °F (27 °C) in mid-August and compared the lake to a "bath tub". But the long term weather patterns are subject to controversy.
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.
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, such as the Franz Theodore Stone Laboratory on Gibraltar Island near Put-in-Bay which is the oldest "freshwater biological field station" and campus of Ohio State University. 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.
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 is a dead zone within the middle of the lake although its 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. One 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.
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.
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.
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 larve to thrive.
There have been incidents of birds being poisoned by a nerve toxin named botulism, apparently ingested after eating fish infected with type E 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.
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 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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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 to 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.
Lake Erie is home to one of the world's largest freshwater commercial fisheries. Lake Erie's fish populations are the most abundant of the Great Lakes, partially because of the lake's relatively mild temperatures and plentiful supply of plankton, which is the basic building block of the food chain. The lake's fish population accounts for an estimated 50% of all fish inhabiting the Great Lakes. The lake is "loaded with superstars" such as steelhead, walleye (American usage) or pickerel (Canadian usage), smallmouth bass, perch, as well as bass, trout, salmon, whitefesh, smelt, and many others. The lake consists of a long list of well established introduced species. Common non-indigenous fish species include the rainbow smelt, alewife, white perch and common carp. Non-native sport fish such as rainbow trout and brown trout are stocked specifically for anglers to catch. Attempts failed to stock coho salmon and its numbers are once again dwindling. Commercial landings are dominated by yellow perch and walleye, with substantial quantities of rainbow smelt and white bass also taken. Anglers target walleye and yellow perch, with some effort directed at rainbow trout. A variety of other species are taken in smaller quantities by both commercial and sport fleets.
Up until the end of the 1950s, the most commonly caught commercial fish (more than 50% of the commercial catch) was a subspecies of the walleye known as the Blue Walleye (sander vitreus glaucus) sometimes erroneously called "blue pike". In the 1970s and 1980s, as pollution in the lake declined, counts of Walleyes which were caught grew from 112,000 in 1975 to 4.1 million in 1985, with estimates of the numbers of Walleyes in the lake at around 33 million in the basin, with many of 8 pounds or more. Not all Walleyes thrived. The combination of overfishing and the eutrophication of the lake by pollution caused the population to collapse, and in the mid-1980s, one species of Walleye called the Blue Walleye was declared extinct. But the Lake Erie Walleye was reportedly having record numbers, even in 1989, according to one report. There have been concerns about rising levels of mercury in Walleye fish; a study by the Canadian Ministry of the Environment noted an "increasing concentration trend" but that limits were within acceptable established by authorities in Pennsylvania. It was recommended, because of PCBs, that persons eat no more than one walleye meal per month. Because of these and other concerns, in 1990, the National Wildlife Federation was on the verge of having a "negative fish consumption advisory" for walleyes and smallmouth bass, which had been the bread-and-butter catch of an $800 million commercial fishing industry.
The longest fish in Lake Erie is reportedly the sturgeon which can grow to ten feet long and weight 300 pounds, but it is an endangered species and mostly lives on the bottom of the lake. In 2009, there was a confirmed instance of a sturgeon being caught, which was returned to the lake alive, and there are hopes that the population of sturgeons is resurging.
Estimates vary about the fishing market for the Great Lakes region. One estimate of the total market for fishing, including commercial as well as sport or recreational fishing, for all of the Great Lakes, was $4 billion annually, in 2007. A second estimate was that the fishing industry was valued at more than $7 billion.
But since high levels of pollution were discovered in the 1960s and 1970s, there has been continued debate over the desired intensity of commercial fishing. Commercial fishing in Lake Erie has been hurt by the bad economy as well as government regulations which limit the size of their catch; one report suggested that the numbers of fishing boats and employees had declined by two-thirds in recent decades. Another concern had been that pollution in the lake, as well as toxins found inside fish, were working against commercial fishing interests. U.S. fishermen based along Lake Erie "lost their livelihood" over the past few decades described as being "caught in a net of laws and bans", according to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, and no longer catch fish such as whitefish for markets in New York. Pennsylvania had a special $3 stamp on fishing licenses to help "compensate commercial fishermen for their losses", but this program ended after five years turning Erie's commercial fishing industry into an "artifact." One blamed the commercial fishing ban after a "test of wills" between commercial and recreational fishermen: "One side needed large hauls. The other feared the lake was being emptied."
Commercial fishing is now predominantly based in Canadian communities, with a much smaller fishery—largely restricted to yellow perch—in Ohio. One account suggested that Canadian fishermen are "still at it and making money" and they "know how to fish" by "using the old nets." The Ontario fishery is one of the most intensively managed in the world. However, there are reports that some Canadian commercial fishermen are dissatisfied with fishing quotas, and have sued their government about this matter, and there have been complaints that the legislative body writing the quotas is "dominated by the U.S." and that sport fishing interests are favored at the expense of commercial fishing interests. Cuts of 30 to 45 percent for certain fish were made in 2007. The Lake Erie fishery was one of the first fisheries in the world managed on individual transferable quotas and features mandatory daily catch reporting and intensive auditing of the catch reporting system. Still, the commercial fishery is the target of critics who would like to see the lake managed for the exclusive benefit of sport fishing and the various industries serving the sport fishery. In November 2010, Ontario's oldest and largest fish processor known as Great Lakes Fish Corporation was shut down after operating for a hundred years; 130 workers were laid off and numerous spinoff jobs disappeared, such as jobs at local restaurants and net repair shops. According to one report, the Canadian town of Port Dover is the home of the lake's largest fishing fleet, and the town features miniature golf, dairy bars, French-fry stands, and restaurants serving perch.
The lake can be thought of as a common asset with multiple purposes including being a fishery. There was direct competition between commercial fishermen and sport fishermen (including charter boats and sales of fishing licenses) throughout the lake's history, with both sides seeking government assistance from either Washington or Ottawa, and trying to make their case in the "court" of public opinion through newspaper reporting. But other groups have entered the political process as well, including environmentalists, lakefront property owners, industry owners and workers seeking cost-effective solutions for sewage, ferry boat operators, even corporations making electric-generating wind turbines.
Management of the fishery is by consensus of all management agencies with an interest in the resource and include the states of New York, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Michigan and the province of Ontario, and work under the mandate of the Great Lakes Fishery Commission. The commission makes assessments using sophisticated mathematical modeling systems. The Commission has been the focus of considerable recrimination, primarily from angler and charter fishing groups in the U.S. which have had a historical antipathy to commercial fishing interests. This conflict is complex, dating from the 1960s and earlier, with the result in the United States that, in 2011, commercial fishing was mostly eliminated from Great Lakes states. One report suggests that battling between diverse fishing interests began around Lake Michigan and evolved to cover the entire Great Lakes region. The analysis suggests that in the Lake Erie context, the competition between sport and commercial fishing involves universals and that these conflicts are cultural, not scientific, and therefore not resolvable by reference to ecological data.
The lake also supports a strong sport fishery. While commercial fishing declined, sport fishing has remained. The deep cool waters that spawn the best fishing is in the Canadian side of the lake. As a result, a fishing boat that crosses the international border triggers the security concerns of border crossings and fishermen are advised to have their passport.
Authorities in 2008 from the Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission have tried stocking the lake with brown trout in an effort to build what's called a put-grow-and-take fishery. There was a report that charter boat fishing increased substantially on the American side, from 46 to 638 charter boats in operation in Ohio alone, during a period from 1975 to 1985 as pollution levels declined, and after populations of Walleye increased substantially in the lake. In 1984, Ohio sold 27,000 nonresident fishing permits, and sport fishing was described as big business. In 1992, there were accounts of fishermen catching 8, 10, and 12 pound Walleyes. It is possible to fish off piers in winter for a fish called the burbot, also known by pseudonyms such as eelpout, mudblow, lawyer fish, cusk, or freshwater cod; the burbot make a midwinter spawning run and is reportedly one of "Erie's glacial relics."
In winter when the lake freezes, many fisherman go out on the ice, cut holes, and fish. It is possible to even build bonfires on the ice.
But venturing on Lake Erie ice can be dangerous. In a freak incident in 2009, warming temperatures and winds of 35 miles per hour and currents pushing eastward dislodged a miles-wide ice floe which broke away from the shore, trapping more than 130 fishermen offshore; one man died while the rest were rescued by helicopters or boats.
The lake's formerly more extensive lakebed creates a favorable environment for agriculture in the bordering areas of Ontario, Ohio, Michigan, Pennsylvania, and New York. The Lake Erie sections of western New York State have a suitable climate for growing grapes, and in Chautauqua County there have been many vineyards and wineries in the area as well as in Erie County in northwestern Pennsylvania. Much grape juice is produced in this region. The Canadian region of Lake Erie's north shore is becoming a more prominent wine region as well; it has been dubbed the Lake Erie North Shore, or LENS region, and includes Pelee Island, and since it is farther north than comparable wine-growing areas in the world, the season is longer in terms of light. A longer growing season due to the lake-moderated temperatures make the risk of early frosts less likely.
The drainage basin has led to well fertilized soil. The north coast of Ohio is widely referred to as its nursery capital.
Lake Erie is a favorite for divers since there are many shipwrecks, perhaps 1,400 to 8,000 according to one estimate, of which about 270 are "confirmed shipwreck locations." Most wrecks are undiscovered but believed to be well preserved and in good condition and at most only 200 feet (61 m) below the water surface. One report suggests there are more "wrecks per square mile" than any other freshwater location, including wrecks from Native American watercraft. There are efforts to identify shipwreck sites and survey the lake floor to map the location of underwater sites, possibly for further study or exploration. While the lake is relatively warmer than the other Great Lakes, there is a thermocline, meaning that as a diver descends, the water temperature drops about 30 degrees Fahrenheit change (17 °C), requiring a wetsuit. One estimate is that Lake Erie has a quarter of all 8,000 estimated shipwrecks in the Great Lakes. They are preserved because the water is cold and salt-free creating "intact time capsules down there". Divers have a policy of not removing or touching anything at the wreck else the "next person won't be able to see it"; when artifacts were removed on occasion, it was met by "outrage" by the diving community. The cold conditions make diving difficult and "strenuous" requiring divers with skill and experience. One charter firm from western New York State takes about 1,500 divers to Lake Erie shipwrecks in a typical season from April through October.
In 1991, the 19th-century sidewheeler Atlantic was discovered. It had sunk in a collision with the Ogdensburg, a steamship sometimes referred to as a propeller according to 19th century parlance, in 1852 six miles (10 km) west of Long Point, Ontario and survivors from the Atlantic were saved by the Ogdensburg. One account suggests 130 people drowned while another suggests about 20 drowned. The aftermath of the disaster led to calls for authorities to seize captains of both ships so "that the cause of the collision may be correctly ascertained" as well as calls for more lifeboats and improved life preservers since the earlier ones proved to be "totally useless." There was speculation that the sunken vessel had been a gambling ship, and therefore there might have been money aboard, but most historians were skeptical. In 1998, the shipwreck of the vessel Adventure was the first shipwreck registered with the state of Ohio as an "underwater archaeological site"; when it was discovered that the Adventure's propeller had been removed and given to a junkyard, the propeller was rescued days before being converted to scrap metal and brought back to the dive site and back to its underwater home. In 2003, divers discovered the steamer Canobie near Presque Isle, which sunk in 1921. Other wrecks include the fish tub Neal H. Dow (1910), the Elderado "steamer-cum-barge" (1880), the W. R. Hanna, the Dundee which sank north of Cleveland in 1900, the F. H. Prince, and The Craftsman. In 2007, the wreck of the steamship named after Mad Anthony Wayne was found near Vermilion, Ohio in 50 feet (15 m) of water; the vessel sank in 1850 after its boilers exploded, and 38 people died. The wreck belongs to the state of Ohio and "salvaging it is illegal" but divers can visit it after it is surveyed. Incidentally, the SS Edmund Fitzgerald sank in 1975 in Lake Superior and the disaster was chronicled in Gordon Lightfoot's The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald. In addition, there are wrecks of smaller vessels, with occasional drownings of fishermen.
The finding of the well-preserved wreck of the Canadian-built British troop transport warship Caledonia, sunk during the War of 1812, has led to accusations about plundering of the site and legal wrangling about whether the vessel should be resurfaced in time for the 2013 war's bicentennial.
Research into shipwrecks has been organized by the Peachman Lake Erie Shipwreck Research Center, or PLESRC, located on the grounds of the Great Lakes Historical Society. In 2008, the Great Lakes Historical Society announced plans to survey the underwater battle site of the Battle of Lake Erie in preparation for the bicentennial celebration of the battle in 2013.
There are numerous public parks around the lake. In western Pennsylvania, a wildlife reserve was established in 1991 in Springfield Township for hiking, fishing, cross-country skiing and walking along the beach. In Ontario, Long Point is a peninsula on the northwest shore near Port Rowan that extends 20 miles (32 km) into Lake Erie which is a stopover for birds migrating as well as turtles; Long Point Provincial Park is located there and has been designated as a UNESCO Biosphere reserve. In Ontario's Sand Hill Park, east of Port Burwell, there is a 450-foot (140 m) high dune which requires a very steep climb to the summit to view the lake. In southern Michigan, Sterling State Park offers campgrounds, 1,300 acres (530 ha) for hiking, biking, fishing, boating, with a sand beach for sunbathing, swimming, and picnicking.
The New York Times reporter Donna Marchetti took a bike tour around the Lake Erie perimeter in 1997, traveling 40 miles (64 km) per day and staying at bed and breakfasts. They went through the cities of Cleveland, Erie, Windsor, Detroit and Toledo as well as resort towns, vineyards, and cornfields. The trip highlights were the "small port towns and rural farmlands of southern Ontario". There are few bike repair shops in Ontario on the route.
Lake Erie islands tend to be in the westernmost part of the lake and have different characters. Some of them include:
Kayaking has become more popular along the lake, particularly in places such as Put-in-Bay, Ohio. There are spectacular views with steep cliffs with exotic wildlife and "100 miles of paddle-friendly shoreline." Long distance swimmers have swum across the lake to set records; for example, a 15-year-old amputee swam the 12-mile (19 km) stretch across the lake in 2001. In 2008, 14-year-old Jade Scognamillo swam from New York's Sturgeon Point to Ontario's Crystal Beach and completed the 11.9-mile (19.2-km) swim in five hours, 40 minutes and 35 seconds, and also became the youngest swimmer to make the crossing. It is illegal for swimmers younger than 14 to attempt such a crossing. In Port Dover, Ontario, brave swimmers do high-dives at the annual Polar Bear Swim on the beach; in 2011, the water was 32 °F (0 °C), although the air was warmer, which did not deter 14-year-old youth Austin Merrell. Currents can pose a problem, and there have been occasional incidents of drownings.
The lake is dotted by distinct lighthouses. A lighthouse off the coast of Cleveland, beset with cold lake winter spray, has an unusual artistic icy shape, although sometimes ice prevents the light from being seen by maritime vessels.
People can rent summer houses and cabins near the lake to enjoy the beaches, swimming, as well as be close to activities such as wine tours and fishing and water parks. Presque Isle is a peninsula jutting out into the lake in northwestern Pennsylvania which has nice beaches. Pelee Island is Canada's southernmost point and lies only three miles from Ohio.
Pleasure boat operators offer dinner cruises in the Cleveland area on the Cuyahoga River as well as Lake Erie.
The lake has been a "bustling thoroughfare" for maritime vessels for centuries. Ships headed eastward can take the Welland Canal and a series of eight locks descending 326 feet (99 m) to Lake Ontario which takes about 12 hours, according to one source. Thousands of ships make this journey each year. During the 19th century, ships could enter the Buffalo River and travel the Erie Canal eastward to Albany then south to New York City along the Hudson River. Generally there is heavy traffic on the lake except during the winter months from January through March when ice prevents vessels from traveling safely. In 2007, there was a protest against Ontario's energy policy which allows the shipping of coal in the lake; GreenPeace activists climbed a ladder on a freighter and "locked themselves to the conveyer belt device that helps to unload the ship's cargo"; three activists were arrested and the ship was delayed for more than four hours, and anti-coal messages were painted on the ship.
The ship traffic in Lake Erie being the highest among the Great Lakes and roughest of the lakes has led to it having the highest number of known shipwrecks in the Great Lakes. There have been other accidents as well; for example, in 2010 according to The Star, crewmen from the freighter Hermann Schoening were sickened by phosphine gas which had been used to fumigate or control pests; rescuers took them by tugboat to receive medical attention.
The Port of Cleveland generated over $350 million and over 15 million tons of cargo in a recent year. The port will begin work on a new set of docks with more efficient railway, road, and crane access. The current port facility is unable to handle larger cargo ships, and the cranes needed to lift goods such as steel to truck trailers are insufficient to meet current shipping standards. This project is planned to start in 2010 and will be completed by 2020.
Ferryboats operate in numerous places. But plans to operate a ferryboat between the U.S. port of Erie and the Ontario port of Port Dover ran into a slew of political problems, including security restrictions on both sides as well as additional fees required to hire border inspectors. In particular, Canada was described as having a "sticky set of laws"; the project was abandoned.
The Great Lakes Circle Tour is a designated scenic road system connecting all of the Great Lakes and the St. Lawrence River. One reporter thought the roads on the Canadian side were narrower, sometimes without shoulders, but were less trafficked except for the roads around the Ontario towns of Fort Erie and Port Colborne. Drivers can cross from the United States to the Canadian town of Fort Erie by going over the Peace Bridge.
In 2004, debris from a plane carrying 9 people was found off Lake Erie isle.
Since the border between the two nations is largely unpatrolled, it is possible for people to cross undetected from one country to the other, in either direction, by boat. In 2010, Canadian police arrested persons crossing the border illegally from the United States to Canada, near the Ontario town of Amherstburg.
|Wikimedia Commons has media related to Lake Erie.|
|Wikisource has the text of an 1879 American Cyclopædia article about Lake Erie.|