Barrier Island and Estuary Co-evolution in Response to Holocene Climate and Sea-Level Change: Pamlico Sound and the Outer Banks Barrier Islands, North Carolina, USA

  • David Mallinson
  • Stephen Culver
  • Eduardo Leorri
  • Siddhartha Mitra
  • Ryan Mulligan
  • Stanley Riggs


Barrier islands and associated back-barrier estuaries and lagoons interact via hydrodynamic and sedimentary processes, affecting the evolution of both systems. Understanding coupled dynamic processes between both systems is vital to forecasts of future coastal morphologic and hydrodynamic changes in response to such factors as sea-level rise and storm patterns. The Pamlico Sound and the Outer Banks barrier islands of North Carolina, USA have co-evolved in response to Holocene climate and sea-level change, and autogenic processes. Recent data and models illustrate the dynamic response of this system to minor, but rapid, climate changes occurring throughout the Holocene, including the Medieval Climate Anomaly and Little Ice Age. Periods of extreme barrier segmentation occurred during times of rapid climate change, affecting tidal energy and salinity conditions within the Pamlico Sound. Hydrodynamic models aid in understanding the magnitude of changes, and the impact on barrier morphology. Future changes to coastal systems may be anticipated based upon changes that have occurred in the past.


Barrier island Pamlico Sound Outer Banks North Carolina coast Coastal evolution Sea-level rise Climate change Hydrodynamic model Coastal geology Inlets 



The authors would like to acknowledge the extensive contributions from many graduate and undergraduate students that participated in the acquisition and interpretation of data throughout the study area, over a period of nearly three decades. We would also like to acknowledge the contributions of Dorothea Ames, Jim Watson, and John Woods. This paper was improved by the reviews of Antonio Rodriguez and an anonymous reviewer. Financial support was provided by NSF OCE-1130843, and the United States Geological Survey pursuant to cooperative agreement 02ERAG0044.


  1. Abbene J, Culver SJ, Corbett DR, Buzas MA, Tully LS (2006) Foraminifera of Pamlico Sound, North Carolina, over the past century. J Foraminifer Res 36:135–151CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  2. Bé A, Hamlin WH (1967) Ecology of recent planktonic foraminifera, Part 3, Distribution in the North Atlantic during the summer of 1962. Micropaleontology 13:87–106CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  3. Bove MC, Elsner JB, Landsea CW, Niu X, O’Brien JJ (1998) Effect of El Niño on U.S. landfalling hurricanes revisited. Bull Am Meteorol Soc 79:2477–2482CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  4. Carré M, Sachs JP, Purca S, Schauer AF, Braconnot P, Falcón RA, Julien M, Lavallee D (2014) Holocene history of ENSO variance and asymmetry in the eastern tropical Pacific. Science 345:1045–1048CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  5. Clark PU, Dyke AS, Shaku JD, Carlson A, Clark J, Wohlfarth B, Mitrovica J, Hostetler SW, McCabe AM (2009) The last glacial maximum. Science 325:710–714CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  6. Clunies G (2014) Hydrodynamics of a large and shallow back-barrier estuarine system and responses to long-term changes in geomorphology. MS Thesis, Queen’s University, Kingston, Ontario, Canada 99 ppGoogle Scholar
  7. Clunies GJ, Mulligan RP, Mallinson DJ, Walsh JP (2017) Modelling hydrodynamics of large lagoons: insights from the Albemarle-Pamlico Estuarine System. Estuar Coast Shelf Sci 189:90–103CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  8. Cobb KM, Westphal N, Sayani HR, Watson JT, Di Lorenzo E, Cheng H, Edwards RL, Charles CD (2013) Highly variable El Niño-Southern Oscillation throughout the Holocene. Science 339:67–70CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  9. Corbett DR, Vance D, Letrick E, Mallinson D, Culver S (2007) Decadal-scale sediment dynamics and environmental change in the Albemarle Estuarine System, North Carolina. Estuar Coast Shelf Sci 71:717–729CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  10. Cronin TM, Dwyer GS, Kamiya T, Schwede S, Willard DA (2003) Medieval Warm Period, Little Ice Age and 20th century temperature variability from Chesapeake Bay. Glob Planet Chang 36:17–29CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  11. Culver SJ, Grand Pre CA, Mallinson DJ, Riggs SR, Corbett DR, Foley J, Hale M, Metger L, Ricardo J, Rosenberger J, Smith CG, Smith CW, Snyder SW, Twamley D (2007) Late Holocene barrier island collapse: Outer Banks, North Carolina, USA. Sediment Rec 5:4–8Google Scholar
  12. Cumming WP (1966) North Carolina in maps, plate II. Division of Archives and History, North Carolina Department of Cultural Resources, Raleigh, NCGoogle Scholar
  13. Davis MB, Spear RW, Shane LCK (1980) Holocene climate of New England. Quat Res 14:240–250CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  14. Delcourt PA, Delcourt HR (1980) Pollen preservation and Quaternary environmental history in the Southeastern United States. Palynology 4:215–231CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  15. deMenocal P, Ortiz J, Guilderson T, Sarnthein M (2000) Coherent high- and low-latitude climate variability during the Holocene warm period. Science 288:2198–2202CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  16. Donnelly JP, Woodruff JD (2007) Intense hurricane activity over the past 5,000 years controlled by El Niño and the West African monsoon. Nature 447:465–468CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  17. Donnelly JP, Hawkes AD, Lane P, MacDonald D, Shuman BN, Toomey MR, van Hengstum PJ, Woodruff JD (2015) Climate forcing of unprecedented intense-hurricane activity in the last 2000 years. Earth’s Future 3(2):49–65. CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  18. Fenster MS, Dolan R (1993) Historical shoreline trends along the Outer Banks, North Carolina: processes and responses. J Coast Res 9:172–188Google Scholar
  19. FitzGerald DM, Montello TM (1993) Backbarrier and inlet sediment response to the breaching of Nauset Spit and formation of New Inlet, Cape Cod, MA. In: Aubrey DG, Giese GS (eds) Formation and evolution of multiple tidal inlet systems. Am. Geophys. Inst, Washington, DC, pp 158–185CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  20. FitzGerald DM, Kulp M, Penland P, Flocks J, Kindinger J (2004) Morphologic and stratigraphic evolution of ebb-tidal deltas along a subsiding coast: Barataria Bay, Mississippi River Delta. Sedimentology 15:1125–1148Google Scholar
  21. Fitzgerald DM, Fenster MS, Argow BA, Buynevich IV (2008) Coastal impacts due to sea-level rise. Annu Rev Earth Planet Sci 36:601–647CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  22. Giese GS (1988) Cyclical behavior of the tidal inlet at Nauset Beach, Chatham, Massachusetts. In: Aubrey L, Weishar DG (eds) Hydrodynamics and sediment dynamics of tidal inlets. Springer, New York, pp 269–283Google Scholar
  23. Goldenberg SB, Shapiro LJ (1996) Physical mechanisms for the association of El Niño and West African rainfall with Atlantic major hurricane activity. J Clim 9:1169–1187CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  24. Grand Pre C, Culver SJ, Mallinson DJ, Farrell KM, Corbett DR, Horton BP, Hillier C, Riggs SR, Snyder SW, Buzas MA (2011) Rapid Holocene coastal change revealed by high-resolution micropaleontological analysis, Pamlico Sound, North Carolina, USA. Quat Res 76:319–334CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  25. Grimm EC, Jacobson GL, Watts WA, Hansen BCS, Maasch K (1993) A 50,000 year record of climate oscillations from Florida correlated with North Atlantic Heinrich events. Science 261:198–200CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  26. Hale ME (2008) Late Holocene geologic evolution of Central Ocracoke Island, Outer Banks, North Carolina. M.S. thesis, Greenville, North Carolina, East Carolina University, 213 pGoogle Scholar
  27. Hayes MO (1979) Barrier island morphology as a function of tidal and wave regime. In: Leatherman SP (ed) Barrier Islands from the Gulf of St. Lawrence to the Gulf of Mexico. Academic Press, New York, pp 1–27Google Scholar
  28. Heron SD Jr, Moslow TF, Berelson WM, Herbert JR, Steele GA III, Susman KR (1984) Holocene sedimentation of a wave-dominated barrier-island shoreline: Cape Lookout, North Carolina. Mar Geol 60:413–434CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  29. Hill DF, Griffiths SD, Peltier WR, Horton BP, Tornqvist TE (2011) High-resolution numerical modeling of tides in the western Atlantic, Gulf of Mexico, and Caribbean Sea during the Holocene. J Geophys Res 116:1–16. Google Scholar
  30. Horton BP, Peltier WR, Culver SJ, Drummond R, Engelhart SE, Kemp AC, Mallinson D, Thieler ER, Riggs SR, Ames DV (2009) Holocene sea-level changes along the North Carolina coastline: implications for glacial adjustment models and current rates of sea-level change. Quat Sci Rev 28:1725–1736Google Scholar
  31. Inman D, Dolan R (1989) The Outer Banks of North Carolina: budget of sediment and inlet dynamics along a migrating barrier system. J Coast Res 5:193–237Google Scholar
  32. Jackson ST (1989) Postglacial vegetational changes along an elevational gradient in the Adirondack Mountains (New York). Biological Survey Museum Bulletin 465. The New York State Museum, New York, p 29CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  33. Jevrejeeva S, Moore JC, Grinsted A (2010) How will sea level respond to changes in natural and anthropogenic forcings by 2100? Geophys Res Lett 37:L07703. CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  34. Jevrejeeva S, Moore JC, Grinsted A (2012) Sea level projections to AD2500 with a new generation of climate change scenarios. Glob Planet Chang 80–81:14–20CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  35. Keigwin LD (1996) The Little Ice Age and Medieval Warm Period in the Sargasso Sea. Science 274:1504–1508CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  36. Kemp AC, Horton BP, Culver SJ, Corbett DR, van de Plassche O, Gehrels WR, Douglas BC, Parnell AC (2009) Timing and magnitude of recent accelerated sea-level rise (North Carolina, United States). Geology 37:1035–1038Google Scholar
  37. Kemp AC, Horton BP, Donnelly JP, Mann ME, Vermeer M, Rahmstorf S (2011) Climate related sea-level variations over the past two millennia. Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A 108:11017–11022CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  38. Kemp AC, Kegel JJ, Culver SJ, Barber DC, Mallinson DJ, Leorri E, Bernhardt CE, Cahill N, Riggs SR, Woodson AL, Mulligan RP, Horton BP (2017) Extended late Holocene relative sea-level histories for North Carolina, USA. Quat Sci Rev 160:13–30CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  39. Kopp RE, Horton BP, Kemp AC, Tebaldi C (2015) Past and future sea-level rise along the coast of North Carolina, USA. Clim Chang 132(4):693–707. CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  40. Kraft JC, Chrzastowski MJ, Belknap DF, Toscano MA, Fletcher CH III (1987) The transgressive barrier–lagoon coast of Delaware: morphostratigraphy, sediment sequences and responses to relative rise in sea level. In: Nummedal D, Pilkey OH, Howard JD (eds) Sea-level fluctuations and coastal evolution. Special Publication No. 41. Society of American Paleontologists and Mineralogists, Tulsa, OK, pp 129–143CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  41. Lauback C, Culver S, Leorri E, Mallinson D, Mitra S, Minnehan J, Mulligan R (2012) Isotopic evidence for episodic marine water incursions into Pamlico Sound, NC during the Holocene. GSA Abstracts with Programs, Annual Meeting, Charlotte, NC, vol 44 No. 7Google Scholar
  42. Lazar K, Mallinson D, Culver S (2016) Late Quaternary development of the Croatan Beach Ridge Complex, Bogue Sound, and Bogue Banks, NC, USA and implications for coastal evolution. Estuar Coast Shelf Sci 174:49–64CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  43. Levermann A, Griesel A, Hofmann M, Montoya M, Rahmstorf S (2005) Dynamic sea level changes following changes in the thermohaline circulation. Clim Dyn 24:347–354CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  44. Luettich RA Jr, Carr SD, Reynolds-Fleming JV, Fulcher CW, McNinch JE (2002) Semi-diurnal seiching in a shallow, micro-tidal lagoonal estuary. Cont Shelf Res 22:1669–1681CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  45. Mallinson DJ, Riggs SR, Thieler ER, Culver SJ, Farrell K, Foster DS, Corbett DR, Horton B, Wehmiller JF (2005) Late Neogene and Quaternary evolution of the northern Albemarle Embayment (mid-Atlantic continental margin, USA). Mar Geol 217:97–117CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  46. Mallinson DJ, Burdette K, Mahan S, Brook G (2008) Optically stimulated luminescence age controls on late Pleistocene and Holocene lithosomes, North Carolina, USA. Quat Res 69:97–109CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  47. Mallinson DJ, Culver SJ, Riggs SR, Thieler ER, Foster D, Wehmiller J, Farrell K, Pierson J (2010a) Regional seismic stratigraphy and controls on the Quaternary evolution of the Cape Hatteras region of the Atlantic passive margin, USA. Mar Geol 268:16–33CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  48. Mallinson DJ, Smith CW, Culver SJ, Riggs SR, Ames DV (2010b) Geological characteristics and spatial distribution of paleo-inlet channels beneath the Outer Banks barrier islands, North Carolina, USA. Estuar Coast Shelf Sci 88:175–189CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  49. Mallinson DJ, Smith CW, Mahan S, Culver SJ, McDowell K (2011) Barrier island processes and response to late Holocene climate patterns: Outer Banks barrier islands, North Carolina, USA. Quat Res 76:46–57CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  50. Mann ME, Woodruff JD, Donnelly JP, Zhang Z (2009) Atlantic hurricanes and climate over the past 1,500 years. Nature 460:880–883CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  51. Mayewski PA, Rohling EE, Stager JC, Karlen W, Maasch KA, Meeker LD, Meyerson EA, Gasse F, van Kreveld S, Holmgren K, Lee-Thorp J, Rosqvist G, Rack F, Staubwasser M, Schneider RR, Steig EJ (2004) Holocene climate variability. Quat Res 62:243–255CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  52. McGregor HV, Fisher MJ, Gagan MD, Fink D, Phipps SF, Wong H, Woodroffe CD (2013) A weak El Nino/Southern Oscillation with delayed seasonal growth around 4,300 years ago. Nat Geosci 6:949–953. CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  53. Metger L (2009) Holocene paleoenvironmental change in southern Pamlico Sound, North Carolina. MS Thesis, East Carolina UniversityGoogle Scholar
  54. Minnehan J (2014) Using sediment organic geochemistry to interpret late Holocene barrier island and estuarine evolution, North Carolina, USA. MS Thesis, East Carolina UniversityGoogle Scholar
  55. Moran KL, Mallinson DJ, Culver SJ, Leorri E, Mulligan RP (2015) Late Holocene evolution of Currituck Sound, North Carolina, USA: environmental change driven by sea-level rise, storms, and barrier island morphology. J Coast Res 31:827–841CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  56. O’Brien MP (1969) Equilibrium flow areas of inlets on sandy coasts. J Waterway Port Coast Ocean Eng 95:43–55Google Scholar
  57. Oertel GF, Kraft JC, Kearney MS, Woo HJ (1992) A rational theory for barrier–lagoon development: Quaternary coasts of the United States. SEPM Special Publication. Mar Lacustrine Syst 48:77–87Google Scholar
  58. Oliveira I (1970) Natural flushing ability in tidal inlets. Coast Eng 1970:1827–1845. CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  59. Otvos EG, Carter GA (2008) Hurricane degradation–barrier development cycles, northeastern Gulf of Mexico: landform evolution and island chain history. J Coast Res 24:463–478CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  60. Parham PR, Riggs SR, Culver SJ, Mallinson DJ, Rink WJ, Burdette K (2013) Quaternary coastal lithofacies, sequence development and stratigraphy in a passive margin setting, North Carolina and Virginia, USA. Sedimentology 60:503–547Google Scholar
  61. Parham PR, Riggs SR, Culver SJ, Mallinson D, Wehmiller JF (2007) Quaternary depositional patterns and sea-level fluctuations, northeastern North Carolina. Quat Res 67:83–99CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  62. Peek KM, Mallinson DJ, Culver SJ, Mahan SA (2013) Holocene geologic development of the Cape Hatteras Region, Outer Banks, North Carolina, USA. J Coast Res 30(1):41–58Google Scholar
  63. Pendleton EA, Thieler ER, Williams SJ (2004) Coastal vulnerability assessment of Cape Hatteras National Seashore (CAHA) to sea-level rise. Open-file report 2004-1064, U.S. Department of the Interior, US Geological Survey, 20 pGoogle Scholar
  64. Pierce JW, Colquhoun DJ (1970) Holocene evolution of a portion of the North Carolina Coast. Geol Soc Am Bull 81:3697–3714CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  65. Rahmstorf S (2007) A semi-empirical approach to projecting future sea-level rise. Science 315:368–370CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  66. Rahmstorf S, Perrette M, Vermeer M (2012) Testing the robustness of semi-empirical sea level projections. Climate Dynam 39:861–875Google Scholar
  67. Ricardo JP (2005) Late Holocene Paleoenvironmental Change of the Salvo–Gull Island–Little Kinnekeet Area, Outer Banks, North Carolina. M.S. thesis, East Carolina University, Greenville, North Carolina, 188 pGoogle Scholar
  68. Riggs SR, Ames DV (2003) Drowning of North Carolina: Sea-level rise and estuarine dynamics. University of North Carolina Sea Grant Publication, Raleigh, NC, UNC-SG-03-04Google Scholar
  69. Riggs SR, York LL, Wehmiller JF, Snyder SW (1992) Depositional patterns resulting from high-frequency Quaternary sea-level fluctuations in Northeastern North Carolina. Quaternary coasts of the United States: marine and lacustrine systems. SEPM Spec Publ 48:141–153Google Scholar
  70. Riggs SR, Cleary WJ, Snyder SW (1995) Influence of inherited geologic framework on barrier shoreface morphology and dynamics. Mar Geol 126:213–234CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  71. Riggs, SR, Rudolph, GL, Ames, DW (2000) Erosional scour and geologic evolution of Croatan Sound, Northeastern North Carolina. North Carolina Department of Transportation, Raleigh, NC, Rept. No. FHWA/NC/2000-02, 115 pGoogle Scholar
  72. Riggs SR, Ames DV, Culver SJ, Mallinson DJ, Corbett DR, Walsh JP (2009) In the eye of a human hurricane: Oregon Inlet, Pea Island, and the northern Outer Banks of North Carolina. In: Kelley JT, Young RS, Pilkey OH (eds) Identifying America’s most vulnerable oceanfront communities: a geological perspective. Geological Society of America, Special Publication, Boulder, CO, pp 43–72CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  73. Riggs S, Ames D, Culver S, Mallinson D (2011) The battle for North Carolina’s coast: evolutionary history, present crisis & vision for the future. UNC Press, Chapel Hill, NC. 142 pGoogle Scholar
  74. Schnitker D (1971) Distribution of foraminifera on the North Carolina continental shelf. Tulane Stud Geol Paleontol 8:169–215Google Scholar
  75. Smith CF (2015) Holocene development of the Ocracoke Inlet flood-tide delta region, Outer Banks, North Carolina. MS Thesis, East Carolina UniversityGoogle Scholar
  76. Smith CG, Culver SJ, Mallinson DJ, Riggs SR, Corbett DR (2009) Using foraminifera to recognize former flood-tide deltas in the Holocene stratigraphic record: examples from the Outer Banks, North Carolina. Stratigraphy 6:61–78Google Scholar
  77. Stick, D., 1958. The Outer Banks of North Carolina. Van Rees Press, New York. 352 p.Google Scholar
  78. Stutz ML, Pilkey OH (2011) Open-ocean barrier islands: influence of climatic, oceanographic and depositional settings. J Coast Res 27:207–222CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  79. Thieler ER, Foster DS, Mallinson DJ, Himmelstoss EA, McNinch JE, List JH, Hammar-Klose ES (2013) Quaternary geophysical framework of the northeastern North Carolina coastal system. U.S. Geological Survey Open-File Report 2011–1015,
  80. Timmons EA, Rodriguez AB, Mattheus CR, DeWitt R (2010) Transition of a regressive to a transgressive barrier island due to back-barrier erosion, increased storminess, and low sediment supply: Bogue Banks, North Carolina, USA. Mar Geol 278(1–4):100–114CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  81. Twamley DF (2006) Holocene geologic development of the Hatteras Village Area, Outer Banks, North Carolina. M.S. thesis, East Carolina University, Greenville, North Carolina, 173 pGoogle Scholar
  82. Wanner H, Beer J, Butikofer J, Crowley TJ, Cubasch U, Fluckiger J, Goosse H, Grosjean M, Joos F, Kaplan J, Kuttel M, Muller S, Prentice I, Solimina O, Stocker T, Tarasov P, Wagner M, Widmann M (2008) Mid- to late Holocene climate change: an overview. Quat Sci Rev 27:1791–1828CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  83. Wells JT, Kim S-Y (1989) Sedimentation in the Albemarle-Pamlico lagoonal system: synthesis and hypothesis. Mar Geol 88:263–284CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  84. Winter A, Ishioroshi H, Watanabe T, Oba T, Christy J (2000) Caribbean sea surface temperatures: two-to-three degrees cooler than present during the Little Ice Age. Geophys Res Lett 27:3365–3368CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  85. Wright HE Jr (1976) The dynamic nature of Holocene vegetation, a problem in paleoclimatology, biogeography, and stratigraphic nomenclature. Quat Res 6:581–596CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  86. Wright HE, Kutzbach JE, Webb T III, Ruddiman WF, Street-Perrot EA, Bartlein PJ (eds) (1993) Global climates since the last glacial maximum. University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis, MNGoogle Scholar
  87. Wurtzel JB, Black DE, Thunell RC, Peterson LC, Tappa EJ, Rahman S (2013) Mechanisms of southern Caribbean SST variability over the last two millennia. Geophys Res Lett 40(22):5954–5958CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  88. Zaremba N, Mallinson D, Leorri E, Culver S, Riggs S, Mulligan R, Horsman E (2016) Controls on the stratigraphic record and paleoenvironmental change within a Holocene estuarine system: Pamlico Sound, North Carolina, USA. Mar Geol 379:109–123CrossRefGoogle Scholar

Copyright information

© Springer International Publishing AG 2018

Authors and Affiliations

  • David Mallinson
    • 1
  • Stephen Culver
    • 1
  • Eduardo Leorri
    • 1
  • Siddhartha Mitra
    • 1
  • Ryan Mulligan
    • 2
  • Stanley Riggs
    • 1
  1. 1.Department of Geological SciencesEast Carolina UniversityGreenvilleUSA
  2. 2.Department of Civil EngineeringQueen’s UniversityKingstonCanada

Personalised recommendations