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Assessing the impact of open-ocean and back-barrier shoreline change on Dauphin Island, Alabama, at multiple time scales over the last 75 years

November 30, 2018

Dauphin Island and Little Dauphin Island, collectively, make up a geomorphically complex barrier island system located along Alabama’s southern coast, separating Mississippi Sound from the Gulf of Mexico and Mobile Bay. The barrier island system provides numerous economical (tourism, fisheries) and natural (habitat for migratory birds, natural protection of inland and coastal areas from storms) benefits to the State of Alabama. The complex geomorphology of Dauphin Island is partly a response to temporal variations in the direction and magnitude of sediment transport along and across the barrier island system. In this report, we present open-ocean and back-barrier shoreline change rates at different time scales to evaluate the island’s dominant behavior (expansion or widening and contraction or narrowing) over the last 75 years. The spatial and temporal variability of barrier island width provides baseline and historical context for potential restoration alternatives being considered as part of the Alabama Barrier Island Restoration Feasibility Study. Open-ocean shorelines have eroded continuously over the last 75 years, with rates ranging from 1.5 to 4 meters per year. Back-barrier shorelines are less uniform than open-ocean shorelines, but are, on average, also eroding over the same period. Periods of back-barrier progradation are observed but generally occur during discrete, large altering events like hurricanes that overwash or breach narrow sections of the barrier island. Because both shorelines are eroding, the width of the island has decreased during the last 75 years. The section to the west of a breach that opened during Hurricanes Ivan and Katrina (known as Katrina Cut) exhibits a steady, rapid decrease in width while the section to the east of the breach has gone through periods of expansion and contraction and has only recently begun slowly narrowing. Although the recent trends indicate declining widths, the back-barrier progradation rates in this area were the highest compared to other time periods, which abated extreme narrowing caused by increased open-ocean shoreline erosion. These data and the interpreted results indicate that both short-term (annual) and long-term (decadal) cross-barrier sediment exchange is a key component of sustaining barrier island width. Therefore, any mechanisms that influence this exchange, whether from natural processes (overwash, breaching, or inlet dynamics) or human activities (development, post-storm recovery, restoration), should be considered when evaluating the long-term sustainability of barrier island systems.

Citation Information

Publication Year 2018
Title Assessing the impact of open-ocean and back-barrier shoreline change on Dauphin Island, Alabama, at multiple time scales over the last 75 years
DOI 10.3133/ofr20181170
Authors Christopher G. Smith, Joseph W. Long, Rachel E. Henderson, Paul R. Nelson
Publication Type Report
Publication Subtype USGS Numbered Series
Series Title Open-File Report
Series Number 2018-1170
Index ID ofr20181170
Record Source USGS Publications Warehouse
USGS Organization St. Petersburg Coastal and Marine Science Center