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Complexities in barrier island response to sea level rise: Insights from numerical model experiments, North Carolina Outer Banks

January 1, 2010

Using a morphological-behavior model to conduct sensitivity experiments, we investigate the sea level rise response of a complex coastal environment to changes in a variety of factors. Experiments reveal that substrate composition, followed in rank order by substrate slope, sea level rise rate, and sediment supply rate, are the most important factors in determining barrier island response to sea level rise. We find that geomorphic threshold crossing, defined as a change in state (e.g., from landward migrating to drowning) that is irreversible over decadal to millennial time scales, is most likely to occur in muddy coastal systems where the combination of substrate composition, depth-dependent limitations on shoreface response rates, and substrate erodibility may prevent sand from being liberated rapidly enough, or in sufficient quantity, to maintain a subaerial barrier. Analyses indicate that factors affecting sediment availability such as low substrate sand proportions and high sediment loss rates cause a barrier to migrate landward along a trajectory having a lower slope than average barrier island slope, thereby defining an “effective” barrier island slope. Other factors being equal, such barriers will tend to be smaller and associated with a more deeply incised shoreface, thereby requiring less migration per sea level rise increment to liberate sufficient sand to maintain subaerial exposure than larger, less incised barriers. As a result, the evolution of larger/less incised barriers is more likely to be limited by shoreface erosion rates or substrate erodibility making them more prone to disintegration related to increasing sea level rise rates than smaller/more incised barriers. Thus, the small/deeply incised North Carolina barriers are likely to persist in the near term (although their long-term fate is less certain because of the low substrate slopes that will soon be encountered). In aggregate, results point to the importance of system history (e.g., previous slopes, sediment budgets, etc.) in determining migration trajectories and therefore how a barrier island will respond to sea level rise. Although simple analytical calculations may predict barrier response in simplified coastal environments (e.g., constant slope, constant sea level rise rate, etc.), our model experiments demonstrate that morphological-behavior modeling is necessary to provide critical insights regarding changes that may occur in environments having complex geometries, especially when multiple parameters change simultaneously.

Citation Information

Publication Year 2010
Title Complexities in barrier island response to sea level rise: Insights from numerical model experiments, North Carolina Outer Banks
DOI 10.1029/2009JF001299
Authors Laura J. Moore, Jeffrey H. List, S. Jeffress Williams, David Stolper
Publication Type Article
Publication Subtype Journal Article
Series Title Journal of Geophysical Research F: Earth Surface
Series Number
Index ID 70190382
Record Source USGS Publications Warehouse
USGS Organization Woods Hole Coastal and Marine Science Center