Jockey's Ridge is swallowing backyards

Jockey's Ridge State Park is dangerously close to nearby homes and roads. Park officials are carting the sand back to the other side of the dunes. But why is this happening?

January 18, 2019

NAGS HEAD—Picture a giant sandbox that keeps spilling out of its walls. That’s what it’s like to maintain Jockey’s Ridge State Park, which contains the largest dune system on the East coast. The dunes have crawled into backyards and nearby roads.

“Most parks don’t migrate,” said Joy Greenwood, the park’s superintendent. “So, it’s definitely a management challenge, we have to respect our park neighbors.”

A string of winter storms and Hurricanes Florence and Michael exacerbated the dune's movement, which naturally migrates 1 to 6 feet every year, according to Greenwood. This year, it was more. "We've lost a good 30 to 40 feet of our backyard," said Greenwood, who lives next to the park.

For the second time in history, state park officials are intervening by putting all that sand back. The park is in the process of moving 140,000 cubic yards of sand from the south back to the north side of the dunes. That’s about 14,000 dump truck’s worth of sand. The project will cost $1 million and take about 120 days.

The dune’s movement is not new. Since it became a park in 1974, Jockey’s Ridge has flattened, shrinking by a third. Over the last 50 years, the single dune has morphed into three distinct and smaller hills. The dunes have already swallowed a 3-acre mini-golf course that used to exist on the property.

“There’s so much wind in this area,” said Helena Mitasova, Ph.D., associate director of Geovisualization at North Carolina State University. “It only takes decades for major changes to happen.”

Winter storms tug the sand, gradually moving it the southern edge of the dune. That displacement is somewhat balanced by summer winds pushing from the south, but generally winter winds are stronger.

“It’s a dynamic system surrounded by a static line,” said Mitasova. “If you can’t grow those boundaries then you have to keep the sand inside the park as much as possible.”

Mitasova said that replacing the sand is the best solution for maintaining a beloved park, which receives more than a million yearly visitors, making it one of the most-visited state parks in North Carolina. “We need to keep feeding it sand,” she said.

However, maintaining the dune in perpetuity may be futile. Mitasova said that the dune is in the process of converting into forest, a process that can happen within a century. Climate change may have something to do with this re-forestation—as the area sees more rainfall, vegetation thrives and slowly conquers the dunes. But the cycle goes the other way too. Dry years will strip vegetation, causing the dunes to rise up again.

“What we’re seeing now is that the dune is dying and the forest is coming back,” said Mitasova.

But Greenwood says the immediate challenge is a park that won’t stay put. “The draw for Jockey’s Ridge is that natural, stark landscape,” she said. “And our goal is to balance the natural evolution of the park, but also stay within our boundaries. ”

 - Rossie Izlar

Rossie Izlar is the associate producer on the UNC-TV Science team.