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Changing Tides: The Shifting Sands of The OBX

The Outer Banks holds a significant importance for many people and for many reasons. For some, it is their “happy place”, it is where families gather and make invaluable memories. For others, it is where they earn a living, either through fishing, real estate, service industry, or investment properties. For the state of NC, it is a driving economic force. To others, it is simply home.

But, did you know these sandy shores we’ve all come to love haven’t always been so sandy? The same place you set up your beach chair was once a dense forest. This sandbar is “living”, as it’s constantly shifting and reshaping — which has caused some serious migration of coastlines. What was once historically deep in the woods is currently oceanfront property. As the shoreline has crept to the west, it has swallowed everything in its wake. Centuries old oak stumps can be found on the beaches after storms, and are most notable in Corolla’s 4×4 area, where drivers must cautiously drive to avoid hitting them. These relics attest to the barrier island’s history.

Sandbar migration is a natural occurrence, and we are clearly no strangers to that fact here. Some of the elements that have caused such a drastic change to our coastline include erosion, shifting currents, increasing sea levels, and extreme weather events (i.e. hurricanes).

Has this reality stopped us from soaking up every ounce of the OBX? Of course not! Bankers are steadfast and unwilling to surrender any aspect of this beloved place. Heck, we even picked up the entire Hatteras lighthouse and moved it back almost 3,000 feet to prevent it from spilling into the encroaching ocean! We’ll do everything we can to ensure this special spot can be enjoyed by generations to come.

So how do we do this? By trying to outsmart mother nature, of course! To do so, we need great preventative measures and reparation tactics.

Prevention:

  • Dune preservation. The “Keep Off The Dunes” signs are no joke. Preserving our dunes is imperative to the vitality of our coastline.
    • These dunes were built during the 1930s as a campaign with the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC, a program to put young men to work during the Great Depression) to not only build up the dunes but also to implement sand fences for an established dune line.  This project and the continuation of these efforts have helped reduce the rate of erosion and prevent massive losses.
    • Sand fences, sea oats, and, whimsically enough, recycled Christmas trees, are all used in an attempt to “anchor” the dune in place. Since nothing is stopping the sand from blowing away, it’s important that there are “sand catchers” to trap any moving, blowing sand, allowing the dune to maintain itself as well as grow larger.
      • Did you say “recycled Christmas trees”?
      • Sure did! It’s a local tradition every winter! For those who use real trees during the holidays, rather than throwing the trees in a landfill, they place them on the dunes.
Coastal Review Online

Reparation:

  • Beach Nourishment. This is the real deal. This isn’t as simple as a recycled tree on the dune line or newly planted sea oats. Beach nourishment is intense repair. It is so essential to this community that the OBX simply cannot thrive without it. Nourishment keeps the oceanfront beaches, properties, and roads from spilling into the drink and going underwater.
    • Beach Nourishment is the process of pumping sand from deeper waters and depositing it onto our beaches. This bulks up the shoreline and extends the distance between the waterline and the dune line. It essentially “pushes” the ocean back, and negates westward momentum.
    • This is a sophisticated process that requires months of planning and analyzing the ocean’s floor and sand composition before beginning. The lengthy preparation is just the first step. Once the equipment is actually in the water, there is a whole new set of challenges. Variables like weather, currents, and tides all influence the projects timeline.
      • Due to the unexpected nature of these factors, it can be difficult to lay out a precise schedule of the project. The contractors may be able to provide an outline, but specifics can be tricky to pinpoint.
      • Since this intricate reparation tactic may have an iffy timeline, it’s best to just go with the flow of things and appreciate the work that’s being done — because without it, we wouldn’t be where we are today. Literally!
NC Beach Restoration Project, Coastal Science.
  • This process is seriously incredible; it is innovation at its finest. If we want to continue to marvel over the Outer Banks, we must protect its beaches and do all that we can to preserve the coastline. It’s amazing how far humankind and understanding of mother nature has come!
  • The best part is? Once nourishment is complete, our beaches are longer and wider, making more room for beach treasures to combed and memories to be made!
Dare County

If you have questions or would like more information on beach nourishment, you can visit Dare County’s website for excellent information and updates.

Posted by Kelly Knutson on 3/22/22