Researchers able to monitor hurricanes' effects on North Carolina's barrier islands, sounds

June 09, 2003

Predictions call for more hurricanes in the Atlantic than usual this season, which could mean big changes are in store for the coastline and sounds, Duke University professors say.

The forecast is for more than a dozen tropical storms -- those with winds of 39 mph to 73 mph. From those, six to eight are expected to become hurricanes, with up to four of them major. If and when those storms strike, researchers, such as Duke professor of biological oceanography Joseph S. Ramus, have in place a means to monitor water quality changes in the Pamlico Sound, the nation's largest lagoonal estuary.

Ramus, a professor at Duke's Nicholas School of the Environment and Earth Sciences, and Hans Paerl of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, have monitoring stations on three ferries -- two running from mainland points to Ocracoke Island on the Outer Banks and the third crossing the Lower Neuse River. In the event that a hurricane strikes the coast this summer, they have the tools in place to monitor water quality (data on dissolved oxygen, salinity, temperature, turbidity, chlorophyll levels and other parameters) in this lagoonal estuary.

"For the first time we will have almost real-time data on the impact of record runoff events like that of the 1999 hurricane season," Ramus says. "The Ferry Division vessels are the last off the water and the first back on the water following hurricanes; they are the lifelines to the Outer Banks and lowland areas of eastern North Carolina. Money couldn't buy coverage like this."

Orrin H. Pilkey, a professor emeritus of geology at the Nicholas School and the director of Duke's Program for the Study of Developed Shorelines, notes "the big changes that occur in barrier islands often occur during hurricanes. Barrier islands require hurricanes for their survival, especially at times of rising sea levels such as now. It's during hurricanes that islands get wider and higher. From a purely natural standpoint hurricanes are a blessing for islands, but they're a curse for people who live on those islands."

Pilkey has spent years lecturing and writing about hurricanes' effects on beaches, beachfront structures and the people who choose to live there. His warnings that seawalls can actually destroy beaches as they protect buildings have helped influence policy in certain states, including North Carolina. His influential co-authored books, including "The Beaches Are Moving" (1979), broadcast scientific evidence that barrier islands, such as those comprising North Carolina's Outer Banks, are not stationary structures but rather dynamic ones that migrate over time in response to ocean and weather.

"It's important to note that in the big storms, the category 4 or 5 hurricanes, it really doesn't matter how well-constructed your building is. And it doesn't matter whether you have a seawall or not. The chances are pretty good that if you have beachfront property, it's history," Pilkey says.

Duke University

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