The dynamic landscape of the Outer Banks is utterly amazing. Tiny grains of sand, uncountable, individually insignificant, yet all together they combine to create the fascinating landscape of the Outer Banks. Even as tiny as they are, each grain of sand is thousands of times larger than the molecules of air and water which move and shape this landscape every second of every day. These molecules are so tiny they cannot be seen under a microscope, yet they push the sand about in a restless frenzy, and have done so for hundreds of thousands of years. And still these Outer Banks remain.

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This is a continual and natural process. Wind and currents keep the sand moving, slowly washing away from one area, only to be piled up in another area, changing the contours of the shoreline. This process also changes the depth of the water, both in the ocean and the sounds. The channels which connect the sounds to the ocean, allowing water and sea life, and boats, to move between the ocean and shallow protected sounds, are called "inlets". These inlets also constantly change shape and depth.

Hurricane Isabel slams the North Carolina coast in this enhanced infra-red GEOS-12 satellite image from NOAA.
When nature gathers its humbling might into monstrous storms and punishes these shores with a vengeance that makes man flee in fear, the sand gives way under the onslaught. Like a Willow in the wind, this flexibility allows the Outer Banks to hold its own against the oceans unrelenting fist.

Hurricanes, tropical storms and "nor'easters" can drastically accelerate this sand movement. The high water can eat away at the protective beach dunes, or wash them completely away, or rapidly fill an existing inlet with sand. Dramatic changes such as these that would normally take years, decades or even centuries to happen, can occur in only a matter of hours in one of these storms. And sometimes, usually only once in a lifetime, a storm will even slice a new inlet across the barrier islands just as quickly.

This USGS aerial photo was taken just
3 days after Isabel created the new inlet.
Inlets Come And Go:
The Case of Isabel Inlet-

Hurricane Isabel reached the status of a category 5 monster, as bad as they come, but weakened to a category 2 by the time it pounded the Outer Banks in the middle of September of 2003. Even as a category 2, its rain and hail and wind caused havoc far into the piedmont of North Carolina as it cut northwest across the northeastern end of the state. Power outages persisted for days, even so far from the center of Isabel's destruction as Alamance and Guilford counties, and points west. The Outer Banks from Carova and points inland, all the way southward to Cape Lookout, suffered extensive damage. On September 18th, within a matter of hours, a new inlet was cut across Hatteras Island, severing the southern end of the island.

This telephoto image by the author shows a close-up of the building that washed into the sound.
The oblique aerial photo from the USGS (above right) and this overhead aerial photo from NOAA at left show two bird's-eye views of the newly created inlet, located between the villages of Frisco and Hatteras. (The location can be found on the Coastal Guide Map.) Dunes, power lines, utility pipes and a section of NC Hwy. 12 were completely swept away here. Oceanfront buildings were demolished or carried away by the high water. One building can be seen where it came to rest in the sound, visible in the USGS photo as a small white rectangle to the right of the label "Sound".

This detail section from the USGS aerial photo farther above is labeled to provide visual orientation with the other photos below.

Compare this ground-level photo (looking southward from the Frisco side of the inlet) with the detail photo above. The "foreshortening" affect of the telephoto lens makes the buildings look much closer to the inlet than they really are.
The new inlet was dubbed "Isabel Inlet". Since the ferry dock is located at the south end of Hatteras village, it could not be reached. Road damage, bridge damage and building debris in the village added to the problem. Even the Ocracoke end of the Hatteras-Ocracoke ferry crossing was closed down because Hwy. 12 was damaged so badly the ferry docks there could not be reached from Ocracoke village. Though Ocracoke village could still receive supplies by regular ferry from Cedar Island and Swan Quarter, only a small passenger shuttle ferry was available for Hatteras village, and it was limited to residents and emergency personnel.

Old and young alike walked the mile from Frisco Pier to the new inlet to see what Isabel had done.
Non-residents were not allowed onto the Outer Banks for two weeks after Isabel because much of Highway 12 was covered in a deep layer of sand and the pavement was damaged or washed out in many places. Much storm debris had to be removed as well. But once visitors were again allowed access, many came to see this natural wonder, the new inlet, which had sliced off the southern end of Hatteras Island. Vehicles could only reach as far south as the Frisco pier on the south side of Frisco. From there it was a mile walk down Hwy. 12 to reach the inlet.

The author at Isabel Inlet.
Wide angle view of Isabel Inlet from ground level.
Standing at the edge of Isabel Inlet on the centerline of a shattered and jumbled Hwy. 12 was an eye-opening experience. Crumbled asphalt lead right into the ocean where the highway had been only days before. Looking across to Hatteras Village, the two small "islands" remaining in the middle of the inlet were covered with crumbled asphalt, evidence that the highway had previously crossed there. At right another photo plainly shows a turquoise pipe and a large black "spiral" pipe which carried utilities, now ripped apart and uncovered by the storm.

Even though the power poles had already been replaced by the time Hatteras Island was opened again to visitors, services to the isolated and devastated Hatteras village still were not restored. There was too much damage to the infrastructure and buildings to allow power back on (more about the structural damage in Hatteras Village is covered ahead on page 2).

The inlet itself was closed in November of 2003 by filling it with dredged sand, and the missing section of Highway 12 was replaced. Highway 12 and Hatteras Village finally opened to general public access on November 22, and the normal ferry schedule resumed between Ocracoke and Hatteras at noon on that same day.
Another view of Isabel Inlet.

The Isabel Breach-

The breach between Hatteras village and Hatteras Inlet is shown in this aerial photo from NOAA.
The dramatic creation of Isabel Inlet north of Hatteras village got all the "press", but Hurricane Isabel nearly created a second inlet on the south side of Hatteras village as well. This second location received little mention in the news. It is, however, a perfect example of what is called a "breach". This happens when a storm creates a wash across the barrier island that is only deep enough for high tide or wave surges to wash across, but too shallow for a constant flow of water.

The breach, after it was filled with dredged sand, viewed from the sound side on the Hatteras-Ocracoke ferry.
This telephoto version of the above photo shows waves are still visible over the sand-filled breach.
The NOAA aerial photo above clearly shows the breach. Sand and vegetation on the sound side of the island is washed away creating a notch on the sound side which did not fully cut across to the ocean. The ocean side of the breach is dark and wet where waves break across it. Left to nature, such a breach may fill in naturally, or instead may continue to erode away until it too becomes a small inlet.
Isabel Breach after it was filled in, viewed from the beach looking toward the sound. (N 35.20028  W 075.71608)

Unlike Isabel Inlet, this breach had little impact on residents or visitors, since it was situated south of Hatteras village, where there are no roads or buildings. The only access to this area is by 4WD along the ocean beach (Ramp #55), which is the path used to reach the extreme southern tip of the island at Hatteras Inlet where fishing is a popular activity. An inlet here would only cut off 4WD access to the area for fishing. Still, authorities chose to fill the breach with dredge sand. The wide angle and telephoto images at right, taken from the Hatteras-Ocracoke ferry, show the area of the breach from the sound side after it was filled in. In the telephoto shot waves can clearly be seen across the sand on the ocean side. From this it becomes obvious the land is not very high here. The absence of high beach dunes, which would normally block such a view, leaves the area vulnerable to future storms.

The Case of New Inlet, Pea Island-
The Pier in the Marsh

Smack in the middle of Pea Island National Wildlife Refuge, at mile marker 34 (GPS coordinates N 35.67510   W 075.48084) on Hwy. NC 12 is a strange sight. What looks to be a very long pier sits in the shallow marsh. It is a curiosity for certain, as there would seem to be no logical reason for a great long pier to be there.

This old "pier" is in actuality an old bridge. This area of Pea Island is still known as "New Inlet", and it clearly exemplifies the dynamic nature of the Outer Banks. This was one of those inlets that came and went, more than once. Though the name "New Inlet" has often been applied to other inlets which appeared along these barrier islands, this particular "New Inlet" appeared north of Chicamacomico (Rodanthe area) sometime in the 1730's. It was always fairly unstable, partially filling, then widening again in cycles through the decades. Then, close to 200 years later, in 1922, it closed completely.

But just eleven years later, in the fall of 1933, hurricanes again opened the inlet, cutting two channels across the very center of what is now Pea Island National Wildlife Refuge. Though there was no Hwy. 12 or any other actual road along these islands south of Oregon Inlet prior to the end of World War II, this was the era when the "motor car" was beginning to make itself useful as a means of transportation via the beaches. But passage along the beachfront, or elsewhere on the islands for that matter, still required a means to cross the inlets. These newly cut channels were narrow and lent themselves to being bridged, unlike the wider inlets, which made a ferry more economically practical than bridge building. So two wooden bridges were constructed across the inlet channels, only to see the inlet close once again soon after the bridges were put into operation.

Today the remnants of these old wooden bridges attest to the inlet's existence, looking curiously out of place across the marsh grasses of Pea Island. One of these bridges is still recognizable, shown in the telephoto view at right above. The other bridge is now marked only by rows of pilings, which can be noted in the aerial photos below.

This composite detail better shows the bridge remains.
Two aerial photos from NOAA were composited to created this image of the Pea Island "New Inlet" area.
The composited aerial photo from NOAA at left, and a close-up of the same composite at right, clearly show the former path of the road as it swung away from the beach and crossed the two bridges, then swung back toward the beach again. The south bridge (left in the photos) is now only a line of pilings, but enough of the north bridge (right in the photos) remains that it is easily visible from Hwy. 12.

Next, see what can happen to beach dunes, even if they're two stories high, and marvel at an ancient forest in the surf.

Next Page > Dynamic Landscape p.2  

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Dynamic Landscape-
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