While a new island grew, southern Hatteras was shrinking

By on November 1, 2017

This Google Earth Timelapse shows changes to Hatteras Inlet and Cape Point from 1984-2016.

Shelly Island drew extra visitors to Cape Point this summer.

By Catherine Kozak
Coastal Review Online

Whatever mysterious forces crafted the new, crescent-shaped island at Cape Point is steadily gulping down the south end of Hatteras Island, spitting aside trees, power poles and a popular route for off-road vehicles.

Thanks to aerial photography and social media, so-called Shelly Island was a summertime sensation, attracting thousands of beach drivers.

Fifteen miles west-southwest, sand travel has not attracted as much excitement. But it has become a much more serious concern.

Months after the sandbar rose in the late spring from the surf off the tip of the Point, a permit was issued to Tideland Electric Membership Corp. to bury power lines along the rapidly eroding sand road between Hatteras Village and Hatteras Inlet.

With the spit that carries the road dramatically diminished, Hatteras Inlet is no longer buffered from the open ocean, resulting in hazardous shoaling and strong currents that restrict ferry and charter boat traffic.

Dare County has recently entered an agreement with the state and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to dredge troublesome parts of the inlet, and the Ferry Division several years ago was forced to change its route because of sand clogging the channel.

Known as the Pole Road, the sand spit has lost about 1.5 miles since Hurricane Isabel in 2003, and is only about half the length it was in the late 1990s. If erosion continues, it could eventually imperil the state-owned Graveyard of the Atlantic Museum and the state ferry docks.

‘It’s unbelievable, really,” said Heidi Jernigan Smith, Tideland’s manager of economic development, marketing and corporate communications. “There’s no apparent end in sight.”

Smith said the electric cooperative filed the application with the National Park Service, the landowner, two years ago as a precaution in case conditions warranted action.

Although the estimated $3.5 million project, which would bury 1.8 miles of armored cable, is not definite, she said, it seems inevitable. The beach has eroded nearly to the cable riser, where the power lines now carried by overhead poles are attached to the 20,450-foot submarine cable that runs underneath the inlet to Ocracoke Island.

“We don’t see the situation reversing,” Smith said. “At some point, you have this realization that this is the new reality and you have to adjust to it.”

Power poles at the end of Hatteras Island are being undermined by erosion. Plans are in place to bury the power lines. (Catherine Kozak)

For decades, Pole Road has been a favorite off-road vehicle route to quiet beaches and fishing spots. But it has been increasingly plagued by flooding.

While driving on the road in mid-September, even Cape Hatteras National Seashore Superintendent David Hallac deemed the road too muddy and flooded to continue to the inlet, where he said the road ends abruptly, as if chopped off.

Wind-bent salt cedar, surrounded by marsh brush and grasses, was clinging to life on either side of the road. The hum of insects and the roar of the ocean were interrupted only by occasional bird calls and the noise of another vehicle bumping by on the rutted road.

Observing some lifeless stalks and leaves, Hallac said that is a sign of saltwater inundation and a water table rising with the sea level.

The remains of uprooted trees lined the shoreline along the ferry channe, foreshadowing the fate of the power poles if nothing is done.

“It just shows you how dire this erosion problem is,” Hallac said.

Informal discussions have been held with the Corps, he said, about the possibility of placing dredge material on the south end of Hatteras Island.

Steve Shriver, the Corps’ survey section team leader, said that during the period between 2002 and 2016, the Hatteras spit has eroded about 7,200 feet.

“That’s a lot,” he said.

Shriver said it is hard to say how much the change contributes to the overall increased shoaling problems in the inlet.

“I think there’s generally consensus when that natural spit was out there, it protected the channel that was behind it,” he said. “Because that island has eroded back over the years, it has exposed it to the open ocean.”

Shriver said he couldn’t say if it is possible to rebuild the spit, or even guess how much sand it would take.

“It would be massive,” he said. “It would be a tremendous, tremendous thing.”

Jed Dixon, deputy director of the North Carolina Department of Transportation’s Ferry Division, said plans are in place to rebuild the beach with dredge spoil by the South Dock basin on Ocracoke, but no plans are in the works to address ferry infrastructure on the Hatteras side.

“We’re concerned – anybody who owns property there, I’m sure, is concerned,” he said. “It’s got a long way to go before it impacts our buildings. We’re more concerned about how it’s going to affect our channels if it continues to erode.”

None of the sand comings and goings in Hatteras Inlet or at Cape Point seemed to surprise coastal and marine geologist Stan Riggs, distinguished research professor at East Carolina University who has studied the Outer Banks since the 1970s.

“Basically, that inlet has been filling up over time,” he said. “If you get the right storm, it’ll blow it all out again.”

The Hatteras spit is part of the very dynamic coastal system that is influenced dramatically by the nature and frequency of storms.

“That is nothing but an inlet spit,” Riggs said. “They’re not permanent. They might last for 20 years, they might last for two to three weeks. The dynamics there have gotten ahead of what the dredges can do.

“The reality is that we can’t predict whether it’s going to open up again or it’s going to close back down. What happens is totally a function of the storms.”

Riggs also saw Shelly Island as more of the same.

“Ever since I’ve been here — 50 or 60 years — there’s always been a shoal there,” he said.

He surmises that the lack of nor’easters last winter on the Outer Banks, coupled with more southwest winds than usual, allowed the sand to build up. By September of this year, storms had rearranged the sand, linking the Island to Cape Point.

“It has happened numerous times over the years – none of them has ever been as big as Shelly Island,” said David Scarborough, the treasurer for the Outer Banks Preservation Association, a nonprofit group that supports off-road vehicle access.

“In 1998, there was a really big island over there. It was about the same place, maybe only half as big as Shelly Island in terms of length. It was there about five months.

“The Point – it changes so much from one year to another,” he said. “Right now it is kind of narrow.”

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the southern edge of Hatteras Isl should be capped with a rock jetty. Money on dredging is sadly just a temp fix. Every inlet north of Hatteras up to the Hudson River have rock jetties, but no dredging expense. The current scours the inlets naturally. A good example is Cape May inlet. Since 1964 when the Jetties were extended farther into the ocean, the beaches north have filled in between 500 to almost 1000 ft wide. I have pictures to prove that. It’s now a long walk to the ocean along the Wildwoods. Do the same on the north side… Read more »

Sarah Jane

Hatteras is a barrier island. Barrier islands have a natural function, which is defeated if you mess with naturally occurring changes. Even understanding this, I’ve been a visitor over nearly two decades. What is seen as most beautiful and is highly prized tends also to be fragile and short lived.


Things would be better if dune lines were not built and dredging was not done and outlets were not filled in when they form. The erosion is a man-made issue. Migration is what happens naturally.

Thomas Hankins

If the spit keeps getting eaten away why not help prevent the erosion by placing large limestone rocks in the beach area when it’s eroding? It’s much more tough for the ocean to move large rocks than sand. Seems to me a reasonable solution.


Nothing to do with sea level rise or climate change, right?

southerly neighbor

they come and go. been happening for a long time. lately they seem to be going more than coming.
same thing happening down here at Beaufort inlet. could be new norm to see wider inlets. either way that’s why you shouldn’t build or place infrastructure anywhere near them. they are very dynamic (ever changing)