Lake Erie Geology

Lake Erie bluff erosion in Ashtabula County

The Lake Erie basin was gouged out of Earth’s crust years by rivers and glaciers between 1 million and 12,600 years ago. The rocks from which the basin was carved are Devonian in age (about 400 million years old) and formed in a tropical ocean reef environment.

Multiple glaciations during the most recent Ice Ace changed the size and shape of the Great Lakes basins. Several precursors to the modern Lake Erie lasted long enough to leave behind well-developed beach ridges found many miles from the lake’s current position. In its current form, the lake is about 4,000 years old and is the fourth largest of the Great Lakes. 

Lake Erie and its associated wetlands are an indispensable natural resource to the region’s environment and economy. The lake is a source of fresh water for millions of people, an important shipping route, an abundant commercial fishery, a recreational destination, a crucial natural habitat for hundreds of species and an influence on the regional climate. With its waves and currents and ever-changing water levels, the lake is also a cause of shore erosion and flooding.

Explore Further

Lake Erie Facts

  • Ohio’s portion of the Lake Erie shore is about 316 miles long and the depth of Ohio’s waters ranges from about 24 feet to about 60 feet.
  • Lake Erie has three basins: the western basin includes the islands area; the central basin extends from the islands to about Erie, Pennsylvania, and Long Point, Canada; and the eastern basin extends from Erie, Pennsylvania to the east end of the lake.
  • The maximum depth is 210 feet (64 m) and occurs in the eastern basin. Average depths in the basins are: western, 24 feet (7.3 m); central, 60 feet (18.3 m); and eastern, 80 feet (24.4 m).
  • The water surface area is 9,910 square miles (25,667 sq. km), and the volume is 116 cubic miles (483 cu. km).
  • Approximately 22,720 square miles (58,845 sq. km) of land drain directly into Lake Erie; however, if the drainage areas of the upper Great Lakes (Superior, Michigan, and Huron) are included, the total drainage area of Lake Erie is 263,650 square miles (682,850 sq. km).
  • Water flow from the Detroit River makes up 80 to 90 percent of the flow into the lake.
  • The lake and its shoreline also are a major source of many minerals:
    • The largest sandstone quarry in the world is located in Amherst (Lorain County).
    • Salt mines in Cuyahoga and Lake Counties extend out under Lake Erie. 
    • Sand, gypsum and limestone used for construction purposes are found in abundance.
    • Large reserves of natural gas—over 3 trillion cubic feet—are located under Lake Erie.

Research Programs

The ODNR Division of Geological Survey researches and documents the geologic framework and processes of Lake Erie and its coast, conducting original research on the coastline, the lake bottom, and other aspects of lake geology. Currently, our two main programs are: (1) measurement of historical and ongoing coastal erosion and (2) investigation into the processes of sediment generation, transport, and deposition along the Ohio shoreline.

Other responsibilities include a substantial effort for ODNR's Coastal Management Program and providing service to the public and governmental agencies that require information about Lake Erie geology. We maintain an extensive archive of research on the coastline, including maps, photographs, field notes, and other original information, some going back more than a century. Search our publications catalog or contact the Geologic Records Center for more information.


Lake Erie Water Levels

Ohio Coastal Management Program

Coastal Erosion Areas Interactive Map

Research Vessel Erigan

The Erigan is a state-of-the-art vessel used by the Ohio Geological Survey to conduct geologic research on Lake Erie and other inland lakes in Ohio. A new brief video summarizes the kind of research to be done using the Erigan and its equipment, including analyzing how offshore sediments are distributed, measuring lake depth, and using side-scan sonar to identify patterns in sediments.