The Dynamic Landscape of the Outer Banks - continued -

The Outer Banks is a dynamic landscape. The wind, ocean currents and storm surges from hurricanes continually reshape the sands on and around these barrier islands. Sometimes this can be a sudden dramatic change, or it can be slow and subtle, taking years, or decades to become obvious.

To illustrate this, I assembled two 1990 aerial photos of the Oregon Inlet area from the (National Geodetic Survey, National Ocean Service, NOAA, and then attempted to overlay the lower part of the 1879 Currituck Beach to Oregon Inlet Chart No. 138 from the Office of Coastal Survey, National Ocean Service, NOAA archives. Because the photos and chart were aligned on different azimuths, I rotated the chart until it matched the photos.

Knowing the current Bodie Island Lighthouse was completed in 1872, its location would be accurately portrayed on the 1879 chart. Using the lighthouse as an accurate point of reference, I aligned the chart and the aerial photo until I found a perfect match. I was quite surprised to find so many land features which remained virtually unchanged during the 111 year span between the chart and the photos. Note Cedar Island, Cedar Point, and the shoreline and creeks south and east of the Bodie Island Lighthouse have changed little. This allowed me to verify my alignment with several stable land features.

The images below are clickable, and will show a large version of each of these images.
  1. Image One - A scaled down view of the bottom portion of the 1879 chart. Click here for an even larger, more detailed version of the chart (103KB file).
  2. Image Two - These are the two aerial photos combined before the chart was overlayed.
  3. Image Three - This shows the photo overlain with the chart, but the dark lines tend to obscure part of the photo.
  4. Image Four - This shows the chart overlain, but partially transparent, so the photo underneath can more easily be seen.
Although much of the chart and photo matches, it is obvious that the beach tends to move inland, the sound side of the islands do change, and that Oregon Inlet has moved and changed a great deal in the 111-year span of time represented here.


Note: The chart above shows only the tip of Pea Island on the south side of Oregon Inlet.

After having such success with the 1879 chart, I looked at an 1862 chart of Oregon Inlet, also from the OCS/NOS/NOAA archives. Noting its scale 1/20000 was the same as another set of 1990 aerial photos from NGS/NOS/NOAA, I assembled three of the 1/20000 scale aerial photos around Oregon Inlet. But after comparing them to the 1862 chart, I had no real hope of being able to match the land forms. And since the Bodie Island Lighthouse was in a completely different location in 1862, even that landmark would not help.

But when I made the effort to overlay and align the chart with the aerial photo, my pessimism proved unfounded. Some of the same features which allowed me to align the 1879 map were still valid for the 1862 map. Cedar Island, Cedar Point, and the creeks and shoreline around where Bodie Island Lighthouse now stands were completely recognizable even after 128 years. The results are shown below.


Click on diagram for larger view.
Diagram by Fred Hurteau.

Direct Comparison

I created this diagram in which the 1862 and 1879 charts have been reduced to simple solid color shapes, and overlain to compare the changes in the geography. Three things become easy to see:
  • Extensive beach erosion has moved the beach inland east of Bodie Island Lighthouse.
  • The sound side of the barrier island is quite stable, including islands and creeks. Note how well the yellow and red overlays match around the lighthouse.
  • There has been considerable movement southward of Oregon Inlet.
In just seventeen years, from 1862-1879, Oregon Inlet had moved drastically. In fact, the location where Bodie Island Lighthouse stood in 1862 is smack in the middle of Oregon Inlet just 17 years later. It's no wonder a new site had been chosen when Dexter Stetson started construction on the current Bodie Island Lighthouse in 1870 just after completing the current Cape Hatteras Lighthouse that same year. It is also why the Cape Hatteras Lighthouse had to be moved 129 years after Dexter Stetson finished.

Related Links -

Dynamic Landscape-
Page One

Dynamic Landscape-
Page Two

USGS - Outer Banks after Isabel

NCDENR Dune Elevation Map (.pdf)

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

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