The Dynamic Landscape of the Outer Banks - continued -

Devastated Dunes:

A month after Isabel (Sept. 2003) sections of Hwy. 12 were still limited to one lane as crews worked feverishly to remove sand from the pavement and use it to rebuild the flattened dunes.
Hurricanes, tropical storms and "Nor'easters" can exact a terrible toll on the landscape of the Outer Banks. The first trips which collected images for this web site came as soon as non-residents were allowed back onto the Outer Banks after Hurricane Isabel. But before that could happen, much of the damage along NC Hwy. 12 had to be cleared first. Immediately after the storm, as NC DOT road crews began this daunting task, NOAA undertook aerial surveys of the entire Outer Banks, providing high resolution photographs of what the storm had done to the dunes and buildings. These photos show entire stretches of beach dunes spread across the landscape like melted butter.

Stretches of the highway looked like desert, lined by dunes completely devoid of vegetation. The DOT worked for weeks to reconstruct the protective dunes from immeasurable tons of sand which had covered the highway and smothered vegetation. Piles of sand were heaped on the sound side of the highway by bulldozers and front-end loaders, waiting to be transferred back across the road to the beach. The pavement was broken and washed away in many places, and had to be repaired.

The two photos below provide a panoramic ground-level view and an aerial view comparing the same area, about two miles south of Oregon Inlet, where some of the largest beach dunes on Pea Island had stood. It is easy to see the size of these dunes by comparing them to the truck in the left photo. This image shows how the dunes were sliced through, leaving isolated sections intact. The labels on the photos provide reference points to show how the panoramic ground-level photo, taken one month after Isabel, relates to the NOAA aerial photo at the very same location taken just days after Isabel.
In both photos, North is to the left. Each photo is 2000 pixels wide.
You will most likely need to scroll to see the full width.

The aerial photo above shows how the sand was washed across the highway, fanning out like cake batter in a pan. This can also be seen in the ground-level photo at left. Some of the sand had already been cleared from the pavement on the left side of this aerial photo. The tiny yellow dots on the far right side of the aerial photo are NC DOT vehicles (trucks, bulldozers and front-end loaders) working their way south, moving the sand and rebuilding the dunes.

When Manmade Structures Get In The Way:

When nature decides to rearrange the landscape on the Outer Banks, it doesn't care whether man has put roads, telephone poles, utility pipes or homes and businesses in the way. None of it can withstand a head-on confrontation with the unimaginable forces of wind and water that can come to bear in hurricanes, nor'easters and tropical storms. Hatteras Village took a vicious hit from Hurricane Isabel when it cut the town off from the rest of Hatteras Island with Isabel Inlet.

The USGS oblique aerial photo above was taken in September of 1999, four years before Hurricane Isabel. It shows the buildings along the beach front of Hatteras Village (viewed looking westward) near the north end of the village, and just south of where the inlet was later created by Hurricane Isabel. Red circles with yellow X's were added to mark buildings that were later swept away in that hurricane. Note the small white-roofed buildings lined up in four neat rows side by side in the lower center of the photo.

This next oblique aerial photo (above) from the USGS was taken just four days after Hurricane Isabel at the same location. It shows what can happen to buildings when they get hit by the same forces that slashed Isabel Inlet and washed away the beach dunes in many places along the Outer Banks during that same vicious hurricane. The red circles with yellow X's now mark missing buildings that existed prior to the storm. The small pinkish dots mark buildings that were picked up and moved by the storm. Most of them came from the four rows of small buildings mentioned above. The yellow arrow in both photos shows how the "L-shaped" motel was broken in half and folded westward, coming to rest on top of the swimming pool. Sand piled several feet deep covers everything. The pools were filled and covered by sand, or demolished altogether.

Many more "before and after" photos like these can be seen at the USGS Hurricane and Extreme Storm Impact Studies web site. The photos cover much of the Outer Banks, providing direct comparison of the landscape as it existed before and after Isabel's fury. You can also go directly to the page for Hurricane Isabel or directly to the page for Hatteras Island during Isabel where the above aerial photos were found.

Stumps In The Surf:

Here is an unusual sight - a tree stump in the ocean surf. No, it didn't wash up on the shore from a storm. It actually used to grow here, tree and all. But the forest it used to grow in is now sandy beach. Quite a few of these stumps are found north of Corolla, along the beach on the way to Carova, preserved in place by the salt water. In the past, great maritime forests grew here because of the natural cycle of sand movement.

It's a long term cycle which century after century, millennium after millennium, steadily marches these barrier islands westward. Wind continually pushes the beach sand westward, adding sand to the dunes. Then storms and waves wash the dunes onto the sound side of these barrier islands. This additional soil builds up where brackish water and some protection from the wind and salt spray makes growing conditions more tolerable for a greater diversity of plant life.

Eventually the dunes and beach are pushed back into the forest. The harsher conditions near the beach kills the trees on the eastern edge as the dunes and beach march ever westward. Over time the land where the forest used to stand now meets the tides as beachfront, and the stumps that were covered in sand are now covered at high tide by salt water.

This relentless westward migration of the ocean has been going on for hundreds of thousands of years. This scenario is greatly affected too by the cycle of ice ages, which cause the sea level to rise and fall dramatically over thousands of years. Land that was shallow ocean becomes dry land, plants move in, only to become inundated with ocean again as the sea level changes. It's all a part of the dynamic nature of these wondrous Outer Banks of North Carolina.

Next Page > Dynamic Landscape p.3  

Related Links -

Dynamic Landscape-
Page One

Dynamic Landscape-
Page Three

USGS - Outer Banks after Isabel

NCDENR Dune Elevation Map (.pdf)

How to find beach access ramps
NOTICE: Follow the ramp access link above for Important 4x4 access news

Copyright © 2003 Fred Hurteau           * Copyright information and image use policy *

home about map parks sports ferrys birds wright lighthouses folklore JRidge ocracoke Scenig Places Ferrys Wild Horses dynamic contact gallery Shipwrecks