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Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Cape Hatteras- Natural Erosion Changing the Coast

My trip to the lighthouse yesterday was interrupted by heat and an injury (some guy passed out and fell down inside the lighthouse). As a result, I have to make another trip back to this historic place. It's a place I have studied, and followed with so many coastal storms (especially those developing winer Nor'Easters). Cape Hatteras is a cape on the coast of North Carolina. It is the point that protrudes the furthest to the southeast along the northeast-to-southwest line of the Atlantic coast of North America, making it a key point for navigation along the eastern seaboard. So many ships have been lost around it that the area is known as the “Graveyard of the Atlantic” . The nearby shoals are known as Diamond Shoals.

The cape is actually a bend in Hatteras Island, one of the long thin barrier islands that make up the Outer Banks. The first lighthouse at the cape was built in 1803; it was replaced by the current Cape Hatteras Lighthouse in 1870, which at 196 ft is the tallest brick lighthouse in the United States. Topped with an iron superstructure, it is 208 ft tall and coast $155,000 to build.

In 1999, as the receding shoreline had came dangerously close to Cape Hatteras Lighthouse, the lighthouse was lifted and moved inland over a distance of 2900 feet. Its distance from the seashore is now 1500 feet, about the same as when it was originally built. Most of the 1400 ft of beach lost since the relocation of the lighthouse was due to Hurricane Isabel in 2003.

Oceanographically, it is of interest because it is a point of confluence for two opposing currents: the warm Gulf Stream moving north, and a cold Virginian current moving south. Somewhat analogous to Point Conception in Southern California, this on-the-edge placement leads to unusually diverse biological assemblages. Many species’ ranges have either a southern or northern terminus at the cape.

Cape Hatteras is also infamous for being frequently struck by hurricanes that move up the East Coast of the United States. In 1999 Floyd brought Maryland flooding, but it was OBX (the Outer Banks) that had direct landfall. The strike of Hurricane Isabel in 2003 was particularly devastating for the area. Isabel devastated the entire Outer Banks and also split the two small towns of Frisco and Hatteras in half. NC 12, which provides a direct route from Nags Head to Hatteras Island, was broken in half by the hurricane. This nearly demolished the small villages of Cape Hatteras. Students had to use a ferry to get to school for almost a year. Reconstruction of the area began in 2005. These two tracks show how NC sticks out and can get hit from many directions.

What I always found facsinating, was that the coastline from NC down through SC has a few circular patterns to it, carved out from geographically favored land falling zones of hurricanes. The natural ebb and flow around the counter-clockwise circulation have helped to distribute the sand and the land... See the map in greater detail if you can ...

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