Friday, June 03, 2016

How Old is Ocracoke?

I have often wondered how old the Outer Banks is. Recently I decided to read carefully The Battle for North Carolina's Coast by Stanley R. Riggs, Distinguished Research Professor in the Department of Geological Sciences at East Carolina University.

Riggs identifies two Coastal Zones in North Carolina. Ocracoke belongs in the Northern Coastal Zone which extends from the Virginia border to Cape Lookout. Unlike the Southern Coastal zone which is "underlain by rocks that range in age from 145 to 2.6 million years," the Northern Coastal Zone is filled with "marine mud, muddy sand, sand, and peat" which buried the older rock "to a depth of 50 to 250 feet."

The Outer Banks, from Apollo 9

Below is a summary of Dr. Riggs' explanation of the evolution of the Northern Coastal Zone:
  • Ca. 9,000 years ago: Sea level rise flooded the paleo-Tar and Neuse River valleys, "forming a series of small narrow estuaries." At this time the mainland ocean shoreline was a few miles east of the present Outer Banks. Riggs speculates that there might have been barrier islands situated close to the shoreline.
  • By ca. 7,000 years ago Pamlico Sound formed as the result of continued sea level rise. Precursor barrier islands formed "east of the modern Outer Banks." What we know today as the Outer Banks did not exist at that time. 
  • Over the next few thousand years the shoreline migrated to the west. By ca. 1,100 years ago (ca. 900 CE) barrier islands existed close to the location of the modern Outer Banks.
  • Beginning ca. 1,100 years ago much of the southern section of the Outer Banks, from Cape Hatteras to Ocracoke Inlet, collapsed as the result of storms, creating back-barrier shoals.
  • By about 500 years ago (just prior to the arrival of the first Europeans) the modern Outer Banks barrier islands re-formed. During the "Little Ice Age" (ca. 1300 to ca. 1850) numerous inlets, probably the result of increased storm activity, separated the islands of the Outer Banks. Today, there are only three major inlets along the Outer Banks: Oregon, Hatteras, and Ocracoke.
So, the answer to my question, according to Dr. Riggs, is that Ocracoke Island is approximately 500 years old...young by geologic standards.

This month's Ocracoke Newsletter is the dramatic story of life-saver Rasmus Midgett and his rescue of the crew of the barkentine Priscilla in August, 1899. You can read it here:


  1. Anonymous8:32 AM

    Rising sea levels, did you say Rising Sea Levels? Did Mr Distinguished Professor say WHY there were rising sea levels?? So, if today rising sea levels are predicted can we extrapolate that there will be new inlets and estuaries and some coastal buildings will eventually get washed away unless a a hurricane similar to what was known as Katrina beats the rising sea levels to the "punch."DD

  2. The rising sea levels he was referring to are from the glaciers retreating and melting.

  3. The picture clearly explains the term ribbon of sand.
    Interesting reading.

  4. Anonymous9:20 AM

    Interesting theory. I don't buy all the millions of years he refers to. I'll stick to the Biblical timeline of a young earth. I'll also confidently stick with the Genesis account of creation and a later universal flood. It all seems logical and perfectly understandable to me. I'm glad God inspired men of old to record these events in the Bible so we could know the truth. I especially enjoy God's creation while vacationing on Ocracoke Island.

  5. Anonymous12:39 PM

    stop! tell me some fun things about Ocracoke, the best place to crab, the best place to did oysters, summer vacation things, average age of the ponies, the cleanest eatery, the mosquito situation, the next local baseball game...if I wanted to know all this geology I'd look it up, the keyboard is already at my fingertips. We are ready for a visit, all this family history and geology is lost on kids are chompin' at the bit to visit you.

  6. Anonymous9:24 PM

    wow anon 12:39 can you text the entity you have arranged lodging with to provide answers to your questions. Perhaps you could use the keyboard and query "best place for blank on OI" via your favorite search engine. anon 9:24

  7. Anonymous9:53 AM

    I thought this was the know all see all site for ocracoke...I know it's not his site but 12:39 makes a good point.

  8. Anonymous12:56 PM

    Philip - Thanks a billion for your stories about Ocracoke history, culture and community.

  9. Anonymous2:03 PM

    I second that. Keep it coming Philip. A little variety is a good thing. If you want to argue or get crappy go on Facebook.

  10. Anonymous11:12 PM

    If readers scroll upward in this comment listing and look to the right-hand column they'll find a listing under the heading Blog Archive of every one of Philip's posts dating back to 2004. I just opened an onscreen calculator on my PC and tallied up a grand total of 3,907 blog posts (not to mention all the sundry comments like this one that accompany so many of those entries). For anyone seeking a deep-dive into the feast of Ocracoke's "best-of" secrets, I'd suggest starting back at March 2004 and clicking/reading your way forward in time to this latest post. I guarantee you'll learn of plenty to do while on the island. And to Philip, of course, thanks--as always--for the tremendous wealth of information you've captured here over the past dozen years. Your grateful readers are most appreciative.

  11. Anonymous1:30 AM

    My momma taught me not to speak bad about other ones so I'm a little sorry for what I'm about to say...

    Philip I think there maybe some dingbatters on here.

    -Matt JoCo NC

  12. Anonymous7:41 AM

    I wrote the 9:20 post, I meant no offense at all to Philip. I love this blog and read it almost daily just because I have a different opinion about the areas geology doesn't mean I don't see value in the post. This is one of the best blogs out there!!!!!

    1. Anonymous9:57 AM

      I, too, am of the opinion that this is a great blog! :-)
      And I'm glad you stated it was your *opinion* of how/when the island was formed - and of course everyone is free to hold whatever opinions they wish.
      I just think we might want to remind ourselves that "opinion" does not equal "fact," any more than "theory" equals "a guess" to scientists.
      To quote:
      1.a belief or judgment that rests on grounds insufficient to produce complete certainty.

      Scientific Theory:
      A scientific theory is a well-substantiated explanation of some aspect of the natural world that is acquired through the scientific method and repeatedly tested and confirmed through observation and experimentation. Scientific theories are the most reliable, rigorous, and comprehensive form of scientific knowledge.

      It is important to note that the definition of a "scientific theory" (often ambiguously contracted to "theory" for the sake of brevity, including in this page) as used in the disciplines of science is significantly different from, and in contrast to, the common vernacular usage of the word "theory". As used in everyday non-scientific speech, "theory" implies that something is an unsubstantiated and speculative guess, conjecture, or hypothesis; such a usage is the opposite of a scientific theory.

  13. Anonymous9:28 AM

    Philip -
    Thanks for our daily nuggets of Ocracoke, its past and its present, people, nature, history...together, over time,they form a wonderful, textured, rich, mosaic image of all that's Ocracoke.
    Many thanks,

  14. Anonymous4:10 PM

    Philip - don't change a think. Ignore the jerks. They are just not happy people wherever they go. I live 300 miles away from you and reading your daily blogs and MOST comments is almost like a daily visit on the street winding thru town. I have a feeling that more people are IN your corner than OUT of it. Thanks for the good reads. NS