Barrier Islands can be found all over the world. But Americans often don’t realize that their very own barrier islands are the most prominent anywhere in the world. Lots of coasts have them, but between roughly Boston and the Gulf of Mexico you’ll find the most famous. That’s a long way too, so the might even be considered the most extensive, if you add up all the multiple chains of islands along this very long stretch of coast; even long island.
Plenty of barrier islands are popular retreats, along the coasts of Croatia and Australia but the Eastern United States generally takes the cake as far as boasting the most barrier islands. Visited by many, they’re understood by very few. Why are they there? And what makes them so fragile and beautiful? And what should we know before we visit again?
What Are Barrier Islands?
Barrier islands are islands that lie parallel to a coastline, normally as extended deposits of sand and similar sedimentary materials and separated from the mainland by a channel, lagoon or similar body of water. The Intercoastal Waterway along the east coast of the USA includes many of these bodies of water in its total 3,000 mile span.
Most scientists believe that barrier islands formed at the end of the last Ice Age when run-off from melting glaciers washed sediment into the sea as it was rising and which then collected sediment from the sea behind them continuing to build mass. In many spots near the mouths of rivers, one can see that sediment from the inland is prevented from being washed out to sea by the barrier islands. But there is ongoing debate – among geologists especially – as to exactly how and why barriers islands come about.
What Makes Barrier Islands So Important?
Whenever there’s a major storm on the Atlantic of Gulf Coasts, people behind a coast protected by barrier islands will know the difference. Open coast is often hit much more dramatically, sometimes disastrously, than is coast behind the barrier islands (hence the name “barriers”). The islands effect on ocean swells during storms can be important, and often will spare the coast much more extensive damage.
In part because barrier islands are not always developed for people, they’re also important as wildlife refuges. Countless species of flora and fauna make their homes in these precious and often little visited islands. Of course, not all barrier islands are off limits to people.
How Has Human Intervention Affected Barrier Islands?
Obviously some islands do get visited by people – some of them quite a lot.
Human development along the East and Gulf Coasts of the USA has led to some extreme successes, and to some total disasters. Obviously writing from North Captiva Island, we can argue that the best thing for people to do with these islands is to just leave them alone. But that is not always realistic and it’s certainly worth looking at many of the practices that have affected these islands in the past.
Florida has lived a hundred years of real estate booms and busts. So if hurricanes don’t do you in, Florida market conditions just may do the trick. None of it has scared off the hale and hearty Florida real estate developer.
While some islands remain nearly pristine, and some are simply too small to develop, some others have been gravely damaged, by over building, by poor planning and because people don’t always understand how currents, tides and sedimentation ultimately affects these islands. Add in climatic conditions that may be leading to higher sea levels, and you end up with a lot of unknowns. People may very well always want to visit barrier islands, just like they want to visit any islands – but doing so requires a level of conscientiousness and care that we’re only recently seeing developed on a significant scale.
That’s not to say the long and noble history of Florida is only bad development decisions. In 1975, some forty years ago, already, the State of Florida purchased 350 acres on North Captiva Island to preserve a good part of this island, not only for posterity, but to protect the unique and important island that’s actually protecting so much of the mainland. Other barrier islands include everything from parks on St. George Island to Amelia Island and Big Talbot Island. There’s lots for all kinds of guests in each of them, but each will ask guest to be cautious, respectful and careful with the unique environment these parks are intended to preserve and protect.
North Captiva is but one barrier island along a very long stretch of coast that includes literally hundreds of others. One of the reasons it’s a bit more accessible is that North Captiva Island has lots (some 300) of private residences that can be rented , enjoyed and really lived in. Outside of all of them, though, is a very big state park that brings the unique barrier island eco-system and environment – as well as all those beaches – into clear focus and ready access. That’s just part of the reason the island is so popular.