Virginia's Barrier Islands Are on the Move

Jan 27, 2017

The rapid landward migration of Cedar Island has stranded several vacation homes built in the 1980's.
Credit C. Hobbs / VIMS

A new study out this week has found that Virginia's barrier islands are moving. Nick Gilmore reports on what that means for the Eastern Shore.

Virginia’s barrier islands are moving – and fast…

Dr. Christopher Hein and his team at the Virginia Institute of Marine Science have been studying the islands’ movements over the past 140 years.

“During storms you have waves overtopping the beach and the dunes and pushing sand back into the marsh behind the barrier and covering that barrier. This is happening on some of the islands out there at rates of up to 20 or 30 feet per year.”

Hein says that the islands’ movements can have significant effects on how hurricanes impact Virginia’s coast.

The movements can also have economic impacts as well.

“These marsh habitats are used as nursery grounds for fishes, oysters, some crabs as well; different species all live in these environments and to lose 10% of that marsh environment simply due to barrier migration means a loss of the economic services provided by that back-barrier environment.”

The team found that a combination of significant storms like Hurricane Matthew last year, a lack of sand in the environment and rising sea levels have been the main reasons behind the islands’ speedy movements.

Hein says that the team will continue their research to better understand the barrier islands and their place in the local ecosystem.