By JOY CRIST
In the past week, many islanders were a little surprised to see a familiar former landmark resurface in news headlines across the country, if not in person - namely, the Shelly Island sandbar.
When NASA satellite photos surfaced showing “before and after” aerials of the area in July 2017 and February 2018, it confirmed what many frequent visitors to the Point already knew: the sandbar known as Shelly Island was long gone. (The photos, which were captured by the Operational Land Imager on the Landsat 8 satellite, are pretty
impressive, and you can see them here: https://earthobservatory.nasa.gov/IOTD/view.php?id-91813&src-eorss-iotd.)
As everyone likely remembers, the unofficially named Shelly Island sandbar was a huge story in the summer of 2017. News of the island’s sudden appearance was covered by media outlets all around the country, and the world – (there’s even a story or two about it posted on the BBC website.)
In the fall of 2017, after we had a month of hurricanes that either affected or drifted past our area, the former sandbar connected with the Point on one end, allowing 4WD vehicles to access it.
For a few weeks afterwards, a sliver of the farthest section of the sandbar remained disconnected and barely accessible, retaining its “island status,” until it too disappeared. By the beginning of 2018, the end result was a noticeably wider Cape Point, with an interior pond that seemed to come and go at will, and still plenty of enticing shells that came up in waves after winter storms.
But chock it up to the dramatic satellite photos that the news of the sandbar / island’s disappearance didn’t really reach the masses until early March, 2018. In the past week, the story has been featured in newspapers across the state, as well as national media outlets like The Weather Channel and NPR.
A few months ago, we spoke with Dr. Stan Riggs, a marine geologist at East Carolina University who has been doing research on modern coastal systems since 1964, to see if we could predict whether the Shelly Island sandbar would stick around for another year. And, not that surprisingly, what he had to say on the topic more or less aligned with exactly what happened.
“The single biggest projection that I can make is that it will change,” he said. “I don’t think there is anyone who could tell you how it’s going to change. It could weld to the beach, or it could get completely blown out to the deeper water.”
“I think it’s safe to say that for the short term future, there will be a bar there, but sometimes it will be out of the water, and sometimes it will be submarine.”
“The good news is that you have several local sources of some new sand, so under the right conditions, the Cape will eventually build a little bit. It moves around and changes, but unlike the beaches where we have this landward recession, it goes in bumps - It bounces back and forth. The Cape just sort of sits there and flops around, because it has sand moving along the shoreline as well as along the offshore Diamond Shoals.”
This movement is illustrated well in a series of maps created by the National Park Service in 2017 that tracked the changes to the shape of the shoreline over the past 150 years or so. (You can view those maps here - http://islandfreepress.org/2017Archives/08.25.2017-ShorelineChangeAvonToBuxton.PDF)
Essentially, while the majority of beaches on the southern half of the island have narrowed over the past century, Cape Point and the Buxton shoreline has grown, and has shifted from the east to the west as sand is redistributed.
When we talked to Dr. Riggs, we also asked about what it would take for the Shelly Island sandbar – and Hatteras Island for that matter – to have a noticeable alteration going into 2018.
“Last year, we didn’t have many nor’easters, and we had a mild winter once we got beyond October. If we have another year like that, the beaches will do fine,” he said. “If the nor’easters stay here and stall out, and don’t move on to New England, it may be a different story.”
Yes, that sounds familiar.
But Shelly Island’s legacy and popularity still hasn’t died off, and it likely won’t as we ease into the summer of 2018.
As Superintendent David Hallac pointed out at a recent public meeting in Buxton, many new visitors who aren’t that familiar with Cape Point have started to call the area “Shelly Point,” and there are still a number of social media groups that are dedicated to visiting Shelly Island. (One of the most popular ones has nearly 8,000 members.)
And keep in mind that the famous sandbar could always come back. As several locals have pointed out, 2017 wasn’t the first time that Shelly Island seemed to pop up out of nowhere, and it reportedly made appearances in the 1970s and / or 1980s, before it disappeared for a couple of decades.
So the end of Shelly Island might not be the end of the story. It’s gone now, sure, but it still holds fascination for tons of visitors, and if there’s one thing that is certain when it comes to our barrier islands, it’s that things change.
“Determining what will happen to [Shelly Island] is a little like predicting the weather one or two months into the future,” said Dr. Riggs in our 2017 interview. “But it definitely won’t stay the same. It’s a living breathing thing, and it will change, no question about it.”