Effect of storms on Barrier Island dynamics, Core Banks, Cape Lookout National Seashore, North Carolina, 1960-2001

Scientific Investigations Report 2006-5309

Prepared in cooperation with the National Park Service and East Carolina University



The effect of storms on long-term dynamics of barrier islands was evaluated on Core Banks, a series of barrier islands that extend from Cape Lookout to Okracoke Inlet in the Cape Lookout National Seashore, North Carolina. Shoreline and elevation changes were determined by comparing 77 profiles and associated reference markers established by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) on Core Banks from June 1960 to July 1962 to a follow-up survey by Godfrey and Godfrey (G&G) in 1971 and a survey by the Department of Geology at East Carolina University (ECU) in 2001, in which 57 of the original 77 profiles were located.

Evaluation of the baseline data associated with the USACE study supplies an important record of barrier island response to two specific storm events—Hurricane Donna in September 1960 and the Ash Wednesday extra-tropical cyclone in March 1962. The 1962 USACE survey was followed by 9 years characterized by no major storms; this low-energy period was captured by the G&G survey in 1971. The G&G survey was followed by 22 years characterized by occasional small to moderate storms. Starting in 1993, however, and continuing through 1999, the North Carolina coast experienced a major increase in storm activity, with seven major hurricanes impacting Core Banks.

Both the USACE 1960–1962 and G&G 1962–1971 surveys produced short-term data sets that reflected very different sets of weather conditions. The ECU 2001 survey data were then compared with the USACE 1960 survey data to develop a long-term (41 years) data set for shoreline erosion on Core Banks. Those resulting long-term data were compared with the long-term (52 years) data sets by the North Carolina Division of Coastal Management (NCDCM) from 1940–1992 and 1946–1998; a strong positive correlation and very similar rates of average annual erosion resulted. However, the ECU and NCDCM long-term data sets did not correlate with either of the USACE and G&G short-term survey data and had very different average annual erosion rates.

The average annual long-term rate of shoreline erosion for all of Core Banks and for both the ECU 1960–2001 and the NCDCM 1946–1998 surveys was -5 feet per year (ft/yr). These long-term rates of shoreline recession are in strong contrast with the short-term, storm-dominated rates of shoreline erosion for all of Core Banks developed by the USACE 1960–1961 and USACE 1961–1962 surveys, which have average annual erosion rates of -40 ft/yr and -26 ft/yr, respectively, and range from -226 feet (ft) to +153 ft. The combined short-term, storm-dominated shoreline erosion rate for the USACE surveys (1960–1962) was -36 ft/yr. In contrast, the average annual short-term, non-stormy period G&G 1962–1971 survey demonstrated shoreline accretion for all of Core Banks with an average annual rate of +12 ft/yr. In general, North Core Banks has higher erosion and accretion rates than South Core Banks.

In the 1961 survey, the USACE installed 231 reference markers (RM-0 is closest to the ocean and RM-2 is farthest from the ocean) along the 77 profiles, as well as 33 reference markers labeled RM-4, RM-6, and RM-8 in the wider portions of the islands. The G&G survey recovered a total of 141 reference markers (61 percent), and the ECU survey recovered a total of 83 reference markers (36 percent) of the RM-0, RM-1, and RM-2 markers. The average ground elevation measured by the USACE in 1961 was RM-0 = +5.8 ft, RM-1 = +5.2 ft, and RM-2 = +4.8 ft. The G&G 1970 survey measured average ground elevations of RM-0 = +6.7 ft, RM-1 = +6.4 ft, and RM-2 = +6.1 ft, and the average ground elevation measured by ECU in 2001 was RM-0 = +10.1 ft, RM-1 = +9.1 ft, and RM-2 = +8.5 ft. The latter numbers represent approximately an overall 72-percent increase in island elevation from 1961 to 2001. Based on aerial photographic time-slice analyses, it is hypothesized that this increase in island elevation occurred during the post-1962 period with storm overwash systematically raising the island elevation through time, which in turn led to decreased numbers of overwash events. The latter processes and responses in turn led to a substantial increase in vegetative growth on the barrier island, as well as submerged aquatic vegetation on the back-barrier sand shoals.

Integration of the USACE, G&G, ECU, and NCDCM shoreline erosion data for Core Banks shows several important points about shoreline recession. (1) The ECU and NCDCM data sets demonstrate that there is an ongoing net, long-term, but small-scale shoreline recession associated with Core Banks; (2) the USACE short-term data sets demonstrate that processes associated with individual storm events or sets of events produce extremely large-scale changes that include both erosion and accretion; (3) the short-term, non-stormy period data set of G&G demonstrates that if given enough time between storm events, barriers can rebuild to their pre-storm period conditions; and (4) the post-storm response generally tends to approach the pre-storm location, but rarely reaches it before the next storm or stormy period sets in. The result is the net long-term change documented by both the ECU 1960–2001 and NCDCM 1946–1998 Core Banks data sets that resulted in erosion rates ranging from 0 to -30 ft/yr with net annual average recession rates of -5 ft/yr.

Analysis and comparison of these data sets supply important information for understanding the dynamics and responses of barrier island systems through time. In addition, the results of the present study on Core Banks supply essential process-response information that can be used to design and implement management plans for the Cape Lookout and Cape Hatteras National Seashores and for other seashores in the U.S. National Park Service system.

Geospatial Extents

Additional Publication Details

Publication type:
Publication Subtype:
USGS Numbered Series
Effect of storms on Barrier Island dynamics, Core Banks, Cape Lookout National Seashore, North Carolina, 1960-2001
Series title:
Scientific Investigations Report
Series number:
Year Published:
U.S. Geological Survey
Publisher location:
Reston, VA
Contributing office(s):
Woods Hole Science Center
x, 73 p.
Number of Pages:
Time Range Start:
Time Range End:
United States
North Carolina
Other Geospatial:
Barrier Island;Core Banks;Cape Lookout National Seashore