The beauty of the Outer Banks is an extraordinary creation of nature—a place where powerful forces have converged, creating a ribbon of sand that is remarkable in its beauty and diversity.
But as numerous authors and scientists have noted, the Outer Banks exists in a fragile balance, an equilibrium that can be damaged by our actions. Some of the authors like Orrin Pilkey at Duke or Stanley Riggs at ECU, were among the first scientists to give notice of the danger of overdevelopment. Their warnings have often been dismissed, yet over the years, quite a number of their recommendations have become part of how we think about this 130-mile sandbar called the Outer Banks.
We are listing four books in our Nature and Environment section. There are many more books on the subject than these four, but we believe what we are presenting here will give readers an excellent understanding of the forces at work on the Outer Banks.
How to Read a Carolina Beach, Orrin H. Pilkey, Tracy Monegan Rice, William J. Neal
This may be the best book there is to start the study of the science of the Outer Banks. Written in 2004, it is one of some two dozen books Dr. Pilkey has written about the science of beaches and shorelines.
Although there is hard science included in the book, Pilkey and his fellow writers are careful to present it in a way that is easy for layman to understand. The style, which is a somewhat refreshing, is equal parts scientists and wonder at the forces of nature.
What really makes the book stand out, though, is how well organized it is.
The book starts off describing just what a beach is and the forces that create it. Terms that are commonly used but may not be familiar to some people are introduced as the everyday language of how to think about a beach.
The authors then go on to describe how beaches get their shape and where the sand dunes that are so closely associated with the Outer Banks are formed.
With the forces that create shorelines described the book goes on to explain how barrier islands are formed and why and how they exist in the high-energy environment sandwiched between the ocean and bays, estuaries and sounds.
As the reader takes the journey along the coast, the authors do not shy away from pointing to the cost of development, how that can be mitigated and what could be better strategies.
A well-written and important book for anyone who wants to get a good understanding of what is happening to our Outer Banks environment.
Battle for NC Coast, Stanley R. Riggs, Dorothea von der Porten Ames, Stephen J. Culver, David J. Mallinson
Pilkey in his book introduces readers to the dynamics of barrier island beaches. Dr. Riggs and his co-authors sound the clarion call of what will happen if development continues the way it has been going.
Published in 2011, the book points out that management policies and development practices are in direct conflict with barrier islands dynamics.
Barrier islands are not true islands, rather they are massive sandbars that have risen above sea level. Because they are not rooted in a permanent base, which a true island is, they migrate with changing sea levels. Evidence of that can be seen, as an example, at Wash Woods in Carova where tree stumps from a long dead maritime forest make beach driving a challenge.
Our development practices, they point out, assume a permanent shoreline.
Some of the conclusions proposed in The Battle For North Carolina’s Coast are considered somewhat radical. They suggest suggest abandoning some areas because the cost of protecting them is too high.
However, they are not anti-development. Rather they suggest that we look at areas that are relatively stable and think about how those areas can be developed with a minimal environmental impact.
The book is filled with photos and diagrams that underscore the authors’ points.
Whether a reader agrees with the conclusions or not, the book is an important contribution to how we need to think about the forces at work on the Outer Banks.
The Nature of the Outer Banks, Dirk Frankenberg
Written in 1995, The Nature of the Outer Banks was probably the first book written by a coastal geologist that explained in everyday language the forces creating the Outer Banks.
What sets this book apart is the historic perspective that Frakenberg brings to his discussion. When he writes about the importance of preserving the sounds as a nursery of fisheries, he reminds readers of the first impression that John White and his 1584 expedition had of the Native Americans. White recorded the Indians filling their canoes with fish and sitting down to a feast of roasted seafood and venison.
Frankenberg notes that overgrazing in the early 20th century by livestock denuded the dunes and exacerbated an already unstable environment.
Although the book was published 25 years ago, Frankenberg, who passed away in 2000, was already warning of the dangers of overdevelopment and making recommendations to bring development in line with what the environment could support.
Ribbon of Sand—The Amazing Convergence of the Ocean and the Outer Banks, John Alexander, James Lazell
Written in a much more literary style than any other book on the forces that create barrier islands, Ribbon of Sand is a great introduction to what the Outer Banks is and how complex its environment and ecology is.
Neither Alexander nor Lazell are coastal geologists. Alexander is a journalist and Lazell is a zoologist.
There is considerable time spent discussing the role development plays in coastal dynamics, but there is also an emphasis on the biological processes that occur on barrier islands. Early in the book there is a description of how waves and ocean currents bring a loggerhead turtle to the beach to lay her eggs.
As the authors examine the natural history of the Outer Banks, they also take some time to write about the human history.
What comes out of their writing is a more nuanced story of what the Outer Banks is, and why preserving it is so important.