Lake Erie is a popular destination for those seeking to spend time relaxing on the beach or fishing for the big one. Lake Erie is a massive body of water that is known for abrupt weather and big waves. But why does Lake Erie have waves?
Lake Erie has waves because of the wind. Most of the waves on lakes are created when the wind strikes the surface of the water. The energy of the impact perpetuates through the water. Because Lake Erie is so long and vast, it can experience waves of more than 20 feet!
How big do the waves get on Lake Erie? What’s the biggest wave ever recorded on the lake? Could there be a tsunami on Lake Erie? Discover more about this massive lake in the following sections.
Lake Erie’s Big Waves
Lake Erie is one of the largest bodies of water in the world. It is the eleventh-largest lake on Earth, and it borders the Canadian province of Ontario as well as the states of New York, Ohio, Michigan, and, of course, Pennsylvania. Lake Erie is spread out over 9,910 square miles and contains 116 cubic miles of water. Such a voluminous body of water is sure to spawn some big waves.
On a regular day, Lake Erie might have one- to two-foot waves. However, the lake is notoriously temperamental, and the weather can shift abruptly and furiously. As a result, it’s not uncommon for the lake to suddenly churn up waves of ten feet or more, which can be quite a predicament for unready mariners.
Where do the waves on Lake Erie come from? Most waves are generated by the wind. Wind blowing across the lake’s surface drives the formation of wave crests, which perpetuate across the surface of the water.
As the waves move, they gather momentum. Over open water, with no obstacles and favorable conditions, wind speeds will build up, and the waves will accelerate and gain height. Often, the conditions over Lake Erie are conducive to heavy chop, which can make boating on the lake quite a bumpy experience.
Heavy weather events such as hurricanes can cause enormous waves known as storm surge. Storm surge waves are created at sea and pushed inland, picking up momentum and height along the way. While a hurricane-style storm surge is unlikely to occur on Lake Erie, gale-force winds are not uncommon, and even regular thunderstorms can generate significant disturbances on the lake’s surface.
Another kind of wave can be generated by seismic activity. Although earthquakes around the Great Lakes are not very common, there has been an uptick in seismic activity along the lake’s Ohio shoreline, including a 4.0-magnitude quake in 2019.
There has not yet been a seismically-driven wave documented on Lake Erie. The lake has had plenty of big waves, but none of them are directly linked to seismic events. That is a good thing, as seismic waves are usually quite destructive.
Wind-driven waves like those on Lake Erie are limited by something called fetch. Fetch is a measurement of how big waves can potentially get. It is expressed as the length of water over which the wind can blow without obstruction. Since Lake Erie’s maximum length is 241 miles, and since it is roughly aligned with the prevailing westerly winds, Lake Erie has a long fetch. As you might expect, wind-generated waves on Lake Erie can get rather large.
Lake Erie’s largest waves tend to come during spring and fall. This is because these months have the most active weather patterns overall, and they have the right combination of factors to make big waves on the lake.
While the winter months can be quite an adventure on Lake Erie, the lake is often frozen over during the winter, which keeps the waves at bay.
Winter, however, can sometimes bring a phenomenon called an ice tsunami to the lake. When strong winter winds pummel Lake Erie’s frozen surface, massive waves of ice more than thirty feet tall can be pushed ashore, which is quite distressing for people who live near the lake.
During the summer, the wind speed on the lake tends to be lower, which keeps the waves smaller. So even though we associate summertime with splashing in the waves, it actually has the least active waves overall.
One type of large wave that sometimes strikes Lake Erie is called a seiche. Seiches are oscillating waves that occur when a moving mass of fluid bounces off a boundary.
You can see this effect in your coffee cup: slosh it back and forth a few times and watch how the waves bounce from one side of your mug to another. Now imagine that your mug is an enormous lake, and you can see how a seiche on Lake Erie could easily become catastrophic.
Keystone Answers Fun Fact: A 1958 tsunami in Alaska generated a 1,700-foot-tall wave! Fortunately, most tsunamis are much smaller, usually coming in at about 100 feet.
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How Big Do Waves Get on Lake Erie?
Waves on Lake Erie can get pretty big. The lake is very long and very large, which allows waves to grow. It is not uncommon to see waves in excess of 10 feet on the lake, and larger storms can easily whip up waves that approach 15 to 20 feet.
The most dangerous parts of Lake Erie are in the middle. Once you get about five miles from shore, the lake becomes deep enough and the topography flat enough that wind speeds and wave heights can really pick up. This factor is where the concept of fetch comes in: when there is a long distance for the wind to pick up speed, waves can become much more prominent.
It’s easy to get caught up in unexpectedly bad waves on Lake Erie. A storm that generates relatively mild conditions closer to shore can generate enormous waves on the open water, which can be extremely hazardous to mariners.
What is the Biggest Wave Ever Recorded on Lake Erie?
While many commenters on the internet report 30-foot-high waves on Lake Erie, it is surprisingly difficult to pin down the exact height of the biggest wave to strike the lake. The largest documented wave that we could find in recent history happened in 1844 when a 22-foot-tall oscillating wave breached a seawall in New York state and killed 78 people.
Another very large, very well-documented wave on Lake Erie was the 1942 Lake Erie Mystery Wave, which exceeded 15 feet in height and caused significant damage to several lakeside villages in Ohio. An eight-foot-deep wave in 1882 washed away most of a lakefront village and was thought to be the result of a large thunderstorm just offshore.
Can a Tsunami Happen on Lake Erie?
Tsunamis are gargantuan waves that are caused by undersea earthquakes or volcanic eruptions. These massive waves cause catastrophic damage and flooding for miles inland. Modern-day tsunami warning systems are designed to detect earthquakes under the sea and warn people who live near the ocean so they can evacuate.
While earthquakes might sound like an exotic concern for Lake Erie, the lake is actually located on top of several faults and has more earthquake activity than any of the other Great Lakes. Therefore, it seems plausible that an earthquake near Lake Erie could trigger a tsunami along the lakeshore, and in fact, scientists have found good evidence that there have been many tsunamis in the Great Lakes.
However, all known tsunamis on the Great Lakes actually come from a phenomenon called a “meteotsunami.” Meteotsunamis are fast-moving waves generated by rapid changes in air pressure, heavy winds, or both. They are not as hazardous as seismic tsunamis, but they are still dangerous weather events that can cause flooding, property damage, and even loss of life.
Meteotsunamis are formed when there are large, organized systems of thunderstorms over the lakes. These massive convective systems generate enormous amounts of energy and can drive immense swings in barometric pressure. Such massive storms mainly occur over the late spring and early summer months. April and May are the most common months for meteotsunamis.
Notable meteotsunamis include a ten-foot wave in Chicago in 1954 that killed seven people and a 2014 storm that caused flooding at the Soo Locks. However, most meteotsunamis are much smaller. Many are small enough to pass almost without notice, generating waves of only a foot or two in height.
Lake Erie is an absolutely massive lake that is known for having large waves. These huge waves are caused by the wind, which pushes on the surface of the water. It’s common to see waves of ten feet or more on Lake Erie, and waves as high as 22 feet have been recorded in the past.
The lake is temperamental: even on days when the forecast calls for small waves, it has a tendency to develop big waves out of nowhere. Nevertheless, Lake Erie and its wind-driven waves are an awe-inspiring part of the great state of Pennsylvania.