It is the shallowest of the Great Lakes with an average depth of 62 feet (19 m) and a maximum depth of 210 feet (64 m). For comparison, Lake Superior has an average depth of 483 feet (147 m), a volume of 2,900 cubic miles (12,100 km³) and shoreline of 2,726 miles (4385 km). Because it is the shallowest, it is also the warmest of the Great Lakes.
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 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 8 neighboring islands, which are part of Ontario. The cities of Buffalo, New York; Erie, Pennsylvania; Toledo, Ohio; Port Stanley, Ontario; Monroe, Michigan; and Cleveland, Ohio are located on the shores of Lake Erie.
The drainage basin covers 30,140 square miles (78,000 sq. km).
Like the rest of the Great Lakes, Erie's levels fluctuate with the season of the year, with the lowest levels in January and February, and the highest in June or July. Its average yearly levels also vary depending on long-term precipitation variations, with levels falling during droughts and rising during periods of extended above-average precipitation.
Lake Erie's short-term level changes are often subject to weather, since its shallowness and the southwest-to-northeast alignment of its longitudinal axis make it particularly prone to seiches, especially during high southwesterly winds, when the lake water tends to pile up at one end of the lake. This can lead to large storm surges, potentially causing 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) on top of that, for a cumulative rise of as much as 22 feet (6.7 m). Meanwhile, Toledo at the western end of the lake will measure similar drops in water level. After the storm event, the water will slowly slosh back and forth, similar to the effect in a bath tub, until equilibrium is re-established.
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 seventeenth century, several other, mainly Anishinaabe Native American tribes, displaced them from the territories they claimed on the north shore of the lake.
Like the other Great Lakes, Erie produces lake effect snow when the first cold winds of winter pass over the warm waters, making Buffalo, New York, the eleventh snowiest place in the entire United States, according to data collected from the National Climatic Data Center. The lake effect ends or its effect is reduced, however, when the lake freezes over. Being the shallowest of the Great Lakes, it is the most likely to freeze and frequently does.
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, and 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.
Lake Erie is home to one of the world's largest freshwater commercial fisheries. Once a mainstay of communities around the lake, commercial fishing is now predominantly based in Canadian communities, with a much smaller fishery—largely restricted to yellow perch—in Ohio. The Ontario fishery is one of the most intensively managed in the world. It 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.
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.
Management of the fishery is by consensus of all management agencies with an interest in the resource (the states of New York, Pennsylvania, Ohio and Michigan and the province of Ontario) under the mandate of the Great Lakes Fishery Commission, which is driven by comprehensive fisheries assessment programs and sophisticated mathematical modeling systems. The Commission remains the source of considerable recrimination, primarily from United States based angler and charter fishing groups with a historical antipathy to the commercial fishery. This conflict is complex, dating from the 1960s, with in U.S. fisheries management that led to elimination of commercial fishing in most U.S. Great Lakes states. The process began in Michigan, and its evolution is well documented in Szylvian (2004), using Lake Michigan as a case study. The underlying issues are universal, wherever sport and commercial fishing coexist, but their persistence in the Lake Erie context, one of the most intensively scrutinized and managed fisheries, suggests that these conflicts are cultural, not scientific, and therefore not resolvable by reference to ecological data. These debates are largely driven by social, political and economic issues, not ecology.
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.
The lake has recently been plagued with a number of invasive species, including Zebra and quagga mussels, the goby and the grass carp. Zebra mussels and gobies have been credited with the increased population and size of smallmouth bass in Lake Erie.
The drainage basin has led to well fertilized soil. Ohio's north coast is widely referred to as the nursery capital.