Beach Nourishment May Replenish Shell Beds For Beachcombers
The juxtaposition of the cold northern Labrador Current and the warm Gulf Stream just off the coast of the Outer Banks makes for a great fishing destination, a mysterious sunken graveyard, and an ideal location for beachcombing, bringing in shells from a vast array of places in the ocean.
Because of this excellent opportunity to find gifts from the sea, visitors and locals alike flock to the shores of the Outer Banks in search of beach treasures for keepsakes, jewelry and crafting, but also for the sheer peace and enjoyment that beachcombing brings.
Many factors affect how successful one will be while beachcombing on the Outer Banks, with or without beach nourishment. Searching after a storm, especially one from the northeast or during the winter, is the best time to find exciting treasures as shells have been stirred up from the bottom of the ocean and washed ashore.
Also, combing the beach a couple of hours before and after low tide proves to be a beneficial practice as the water recedes and leaves behind exciting finds. Searching through the sea grass high up on shore or in select, undisturbed areas on the Outer Banks are also good ways to increase your chances of making a discovery.
But with an extensive beach nourishment project underway this summer, what will that mean for beachcombing and the probability of discovering shells, sea glass and other finds?
The beach nourishment project currently underway along the shores of Duck, Southern Shores, Kitty Hawk and Kill Devil Hills will be pumping about four million cubic yards of sand from offshore borrow sites onto the northern beaches of the Outer Banks.
Composition studies were performed to ensure that the sand being moved matches the sand that is already on the beach in terms of grain size, mineral content and composition, which is important to avoid silty, muddy and rocky sand being pumped onto the shore. Still, it’s guaranteed that the natural sand on the beach will be altered. Although no one can be certain of what kinds of shells lie beneath the surface of the site from which the sand is being pumped, one thing that is a definite is that the shell content of a beach is increased with each re-nourishment.
“I don’t know what’s offshore in the borrow area,” says Terri Kirby-Hathaway, marine education specialist for North Carolina Sea Grant and an avid shell collector. New sand that’s being pumped onto the beach could have a variety of shells and other relics that have been buried beneath the surface for some time.
No one can be sure of what exactly is out there, Kirby-Hathaway points out.
“It will be interesting to go out and check it out as the sand gets put up.”
The shells and other artifacts found on the beach arrive there in a couple of ways other than being washed up on shore, such as being uncovered by wind, water, erosion, and digging.
“Dark shells have been buried for a long time in anoxic conditions,” Kirby-Hathaway explains, adding that if one finds a pretty whelk shell, it probably just washed up from offshore.”
When sand is dredged from an offshore borrow site, the surf may be affected for a certain period of time as sandbars shift to establish equilibrium, possibly impacting the surf by causing the waves to break on shore, thus changing the way shells are washed up. In addition, beach nourishment can sometimes cause bottom organisms and habitats to be smothered by unsettled water. Although governmental regulations are in place to monitor this, more organisms could potentially tumble onto the shores, including the shells in which some of them inhabit.
Nourishment could have a negative impact on beachcombing, as the new sand would bury treasures further beneath the surface. Still, shells that were buried offshore in the borrow site will exist in the new top layer of sand, possibly creating an opportunity of discovering an entirely different set of shells. But it all depends on the quality of the sand that is pumped.
While it may be largely unclear what impact beach nourishment may have, other than the physical changes to the landscape of the beaches, it’s worth getting out there this summer to comb the beach. You never know what you may find. ♦
Abby Stewart is a freelance writer who lives in Currituck County but has spent most of her summers on the beautiful beaches of the Outer Banks.