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The Outer Banks of North Carolina

December 27, 2016

The Outer Banks of North Carolina are excellent examples of the nearly 300 barrier islands rimming the Atlantic and Gulf coasts of the United States. These low, sandy islands are among the most dynamic natural landscapes occupied by man. Beach sands move offshore, onshore, and along the shore in the direction of the prevailing longshore currents. In this way, sandy coasts continuously adjust to different tide, wave, and current conditions and to rising sea level that causes the islands to migrate landward.

Despite such changes, barrier islands are of considerable environmental importance. The Outer Banks are home to diverse natural ecosystems that are adapted to the harsh coastal environment. Native species tend to be robust and many are specifically adapted to withstand salt spray, periodic saltwater flooding, and the islands’ well-drained sandy soil. The Outer Banks provide an important stopover for birds on the Atlantic flyway, and many species inhabit the islands year round. In addition, Outer Banks beaches provide an important nesting habitat for five endangered or threatened sea turtle species.

European explorers discovered North Carolina’s barrier islands in the 16th century, although the islands were not permanently settled until the middle 17th century. By the early 19th century, shipbuilding and lumber industries were among the most successful, until forest resources were depleted. Commercial fishing eventually followed, and it expanded considerably after the Civil War. By the Great Depression, however, little industry existed on the Outer Banks. In response to the effects of a severe hurricane in 1933, the National Park Service and the Civilian Conservation Corps proposed a massive sand-fixation program to stabilize the moving sand and prevent storm waves from sweeping across the entire width of some sections of the islands. Between 1933 and 1940, this program constructed sand fencing on 185 kilometers (115 miles) of beach and planted grass seedlings, trees, and shrubs.

In 1937, Congress authorized the Cape Hatteras National Seashore, which was established in 1953. The national seashore preserved one of the world’s best examples of a barrier island environment, and minimized the effect of erosion that was becoming a serious problem. In 1966, Congress authorized the Cape Lookout National Seashore to ensure that Core and Shackleford Banks would not undergo major development and could be preserved in their natural state.

The rate of population growth along the Outer Banks in recent decades has been among the highest in North Carolina. More important, however, has been the growth in vacationers—in 2008, more than a quarter of a million visitors during a typical week. Municipalities now need to provide services to a transient population as much as six times as large as their permanent resident population.

Although human activities have dominated the landscape changes observed on the Outer Banks for the past century or two, these changes must be understood in the context of the prevailing atmospheric, oceanic, and geologic processes that have governed the form and function of these islands for thousands of years. It is these natural processes that imbue the Outer Banks with their unique and dichotomous qualities of tranquility and tumult. In the presence of human occupation, it is these same processes that make the islands one of the highest natural-hazard risk zones along the Eastern Seaboard of the United States.

Publication Year 2016
Title The Outer Banks of North Carolina
DOI 10.3133/pp1827
Authors Robert Dolan, Harry F. Lins, Jodi Jones Smith
Publication Type Report
Publication Subtype USGS Numbered Series
Series Title Professional Paper
Series Number 1827
Index ID pp1827
Record Source USGS Publications Warehouse
USGS Organization Office of Surface Water