Why Shelly Island appeared, then disappeared

Shelly Island appeared and then all but disappeared with Hurricane Maria. Could it return? 

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Shelly Island's emergence

You could say that Shelly Island had its day in the sun.

Locals called it a sandbar. But to the rest of the nation, it was a new island—a kind of swashbuckling getaway that embraced the excitement of the sea. The media watched it while the public explored it.

Coastal scientists say it started growing fall of 2016 and was noticed by beachgoers the following spring. After about one year, Shelly Island had grown to roughly one mile long, with about 100 acres of sand above the water. At low tide, Shelly Island was even connected to the mainland. The island was also starting to host plant life.

Washed away by a hurricane

But researchers always predicted that the island might be washed away if a strong enough storm blew through the coast. That was Hurricane Maria.

The storm stayed offshore, but raked the Outer Banks with hurricane force winds, huge waves and storm surge.

Now almost 90-percent of Shelly Island is back out to sea. Hurricane Maria essentially rearranged the island/sandbar. Part of the island is now connected to the Cape Point end of Hatteras Island. The rest is an oval shaped sandbar that is a few hundred feet from Cape Point.

The newspaper The Outer Banks Voice reports that beachgoers can still find lots of shells on what’s left of Shelly Island. The strip of sand also is home to starfish, horseshoe crabs and other cool marine life.

The dynamic nature of barrier islands

Stanley Riggs, a professor of geology at East Carolina University and an expert on coastal systems, calls the story of Shelly Island a current example of the dynamic nature of barrier islands and of what is happening to the Outer Banks.

“These land masses are moving," says Riggs. "They’ve always moved, they always will move. They’re storm dependent systems. They have to have storms. If you don’t let them breathe, you’re going to kill them."

Nobody can predict what will happen to Shelly Island. It turns out some of the dredging and beach nourishment work that was being conducted nearby is scheduled to resume.

Who knows, Shelly Island may rise from the sea again.


—Frank Graff 

Frank Graff is a producer/reporter with UNC-TV, focusing on Sci Tech Now North Carolina, a weekly science series that airs Tuesdays on UNC-TV. In addition to producing these special segments, Frank will provide additional information related to his stories through this North Carolina Science Now Reporter's Blog!

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