Tales of the Coast
America's Coasts


Great Lakes: Lake Erie

Much of the Lake Erie shoreline experienced intensive industrial development over the 19th and 20th centuries. The shoreline today is highly variable, with artificial structures, beaches, wetlands and cohesive bluffs occurring at different points from the Michigan coast to the city of Cleveland in north-central Ohio. With the exception of the artificial shorelines, all of these geomorphic types are very erodible. Sandusky Bay, a sheltered shoreline west of Cleveland, also contains a mix of beaches, wetlands and structures.

East of Cleveland, Ohio, the shoreline is dominated by cohesive bluffs with small areas of beaches. Pennsylvania has only a small portion of shoreline, less than 90 miles long, and it is composed mostly of composite bluffs and wetlands. Presque Isle offshore of Erie, Pennsylvania, is a sand spit that is very unique in the Great Lakes. It formed from glacial sediment deposits that were re-worked by the lake waters, but since the early 19th century it has been eroding naturally as the sediment supply has diminished. Structural responses including breakwaters and beach nourishment are still used to mitigate erosion near the harbor. East of Presque Isle, bluffs are once again the most common coastal geomorphologic type, with much of the New York shoreline consisting of bedrock and artificial structures.

The northern coast of Lake Erie is in Canada, and it remains highly variable in its geomorphology. Bluffs, low banks and beaches are the most common shoreline types along this portion of the lakeshore.

Sandusky Harbor

Sandusky Harbor, Ohio. Large commercial harbor on Lake Erie. Source: USACE.

Lake Erie Conditions

Lake Erie is the shallowest of the Great Lakes, and consequently it is very susceptible to water level changes from waves and storm surges. These water level changes can increase erosion, which is already problematic because of the erodible geomorphology and extensive shoreline alterations.