Lake Erie is somewhat like the month of March. It arrives quietly, like a lamb, but goes out roaring like a lion. The waters of the western lakes, Superior, Michigan, and Huron, meander down the St. Clair River, through little Lake St. Clair and then down the Detroit River into Lake Erie, all without hardly a sound. After all, the drop from Lake Huron to Lake Erie is less than 11.5 feet. No locks are required for ships to navigate the waterways between the lakes.
During the last 100 years, Lake St. Clair has been considered to be little more than a flooded wetland. Once an important stopping point for migrating waterfowl, its narrow central channel is the only waterway still open for navigation today. Due to traffic, building in the region and other physical changes, few birds now stop on Lake St. Clair.
The waters enter Lake Erie at its western end at a point where the water is usually close to the same depth as Lake St. Clair. Lake Erie itself is the shallowest of the Great Lakes and at times acts much more like a river than a Lake. Acting like a drain, the rapid flowing Niagara River and Niagara Falls create a current in Lake Erie. This is caused by the over 300 foot total drop between Lake Ontario and Lake Erie. This creates a current from west to east. Lake Erie’s average depth is just 62 feet, yet in the western basin, it is usually a mere 30 feet or less.
In contrast, Lake Superior has over 30 times the water volume of Lake Erie, and its average depth is 483 feet. The deepest spot on Lake Superior is 1,333 feet or six times the deepest part of Lake Erie.
The main outflow from Lake Erie is the Niagara River, which provides hydroelectric power to both Canada and the United States as it spins huge turbines near Niagara Falls. The roar of the falls can be heard for miles as 90% of the water draining from Lake Erie falls over 243 feet at the falls. The Welland Canal diverts some water for ship passage from Port Colborne, Ontario, on Lake Erie to St. Catharines on Lake Ontario. The canal lifts or lowers the ships a total of 326 feet between the lakes and the difference between the two is the fact that the Niagara River with its many rapids itself drops over 80 feet on its way to the falls.
At its deepest point, Lake Erie is about 210 feet as compared to its neighbor Lake Ontario deepest of 800 feet. What does this shallowness mean for Lake Erie?
Because of this, it is also the warmest. In 1999, this caused an unusual problem. For many years, two nuclear power plants that operate on the shores of the lake have used lake water to cool their reactors. In the hot summer of 1999, the lake waters’ temperatures were so high that they came close to the 85 degrees limit to keep the plants operating under safe conditions. Another unusual fact is that despite being the warmest lake in the summer, it is also the first to freeze in the winter. This again is caused in part by the lack of depth throughout Lake Erie.
One other item relating to its shallowness is that the lake is known for its furious storms. Again, due to this, the waves kick up faster and, in general, are much more violent than deep water waves. When you add that to the fact of nature that Lake Erie’s main axis is nearly perfectly matched with that of the prevailing winds, larger waves can result.
With over one-hundred miles of ocean, a 40-knot wind can kick up waves of 30 feet. This same wind blowing over Lake Erie the same distance can produce waves that are nearly as big, but are much closer together than on the oceans. This type of wave is common in some of the storms on Lake Erie and produces many problems for boaters.
A Canadian poet, Robert Finch, calls the lake “temperamental, unpredictable, vagrant but never brooding.” I can testify that the lake is unpredictable. Over the years, I have been able to read the weather and know when to head for port. I usually arrive about 30 minutes before most other boaters. Many storms seem to come up out of nowhere on Lake Erie.
In North America starting in the fall, the still warm air from the south meets head-on with the cold air dropping down from the arctic. This creates the perfect conditions for the storms with their strong winds that attack the Great Lakes at this time of year. Due to its shallowness and the fact that it contains the least water, Lake Erie and its waves are almost always the biggest and more easily affected by the winds that blow down the lake.
Waves are strange yet complex things. A rough sea or lake stirs the sand and mud off the bottom of the ocean or lake. This darkens the water and sets up fierce underwater currents. As the storm continues, the waves will begin to build. This in conjunction with the currents in the lake, causes a sloshing-like action to start along the lake’s east-west axis. As all this happens, the waves begin to grow larger.
I have read at least six books on the Great Lakes that call Lake Erie the Graveyard of the Great Lakes. I can understand that, given what is known as the “Lake Erie Quadrangle,” which is a 2,500-square mile section of the lake located between Long Point, Ontario, and Erie, Pennsylvania. It has claimed over 450 shipwrecks over the years. In contrast, the Bermuda Triangle has claimed only 115 ships, and it is five times as large.
The areas around Lake Erie have always been known to have some of the most fertile soil in North America. However, these soils are easily eroded by nearly 34 inches of annual rain the area receives. This washes soil and minerals into the lake in the spring and then after each rainfall. That, of course, makes the waters of the lake rich in nutrients. As a result, even today Lake Erie supports more fish than any of the other Great Lakes. In fact, the city of Erie held the title of “The Freshwater Fishing Capital of the World” for many years. Some figures show Lake Erie has a fish population of 42 million or more as compared to Lake Superior of just 12.5 million.
As most people know, Lake Erie’s environmental health has been a concern for many decades. Yes, as noted above, the run-off from streams has made the waters of the lake fish friendly. Still, with industry dumping chemicals and farmers overusing chemical fertilizer and other toxic chemicals, new and different problems have plagued the lake. Over the last ten years, the lake has begun to suffer from two new recent problems. One is algae blooms, and the other is eutrophication.
The Merriam – Webster Dictionary defines eutrophication as follows: the process by which a body of water becomes enriched in dissolved nutrients (as phosphates) that stimulate the growth of aquatic plant life usually resulting in the depletion of dissolved oxygen.
This problem can periodically create dead zones or regions of low oxygen in the lake. These dead locations can vary over time. They even entirely disappear. At the same time this is happening, the lake’s blue-green algae blooms, a fairly recent problem, usually arrive late in the summer. Over the last five to eight years, the algae have become a common occurrence. Scientists from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration have been studying these problems. It is hoped that solutions will be found soon.
Even though Lake Erie has some problems, it remains a primary place for people to fish, swim, boat, sunbathe and in general enjoy themselves. There are numerous parks and other attractions on both the Canadian and American sides of the Lake.
State and provincial parks abound all around the lake, and include our Presque Isle State Park, Long Point Provincial Park in Canada and Ontario’s Sand Hill Park, east of Port Burwell where a 450-foot high dune offers a spectacular view of the lake. In the western portion, the Lake Erie islands offer many unique activities. They include viewing the deep glacial grooves in the bedrock limestone, hiking and biking and ferry rides throughout the islands. Lake Erie also is dotted with many distinct lighthouses all along both the Canadian and American shorelines.
Our lake is an excellent resource to this area, and in the next blog I will cover what I see are the present and future risks that may be involved in the health of the Great Lakes, until then:
See you on the park!!
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