The northernmost barrier islands, including Hatteras and Ocracoke islands in North Carolina, are geologically young, having reached their current dimensions and character less than 5,000 years ago. The South Carolina Sea Islands, best expressed from Bull Island to Hilton Head Island, are composed of both old and new ocean-derived sediments. The central core of these coastal islands is more than 25,000 years old, while a narrow ribbon of sand — usually comprising the ocean shoreline and adjacent dunes — is similar in age to the North Carolina barrier islands.
The region features four major capes: Hatteras, Lookout, and Fear in North Carolina and Romain in South Carolina. Scientists believe that Pleistocene Epoch sediments reworked by ocean waves and tides created these cape features. Cape Hatteras extends well into the Atlantic Ocean, and standing there, one immediately senses that this point of land is a tempting target for Atlantic hurricanes. In contrast to the North Carolina capes, Cape Romain today is composed of several dissembled islands that have evolved into a more or less diffuse cape feature. These complex cape features are typically home to a diverse suite of plants.
Two major ocean currents affect the coastal region of the Carolinas. The Labrador Current flows from its cold-water origin in the Hudson and Davis straits and the Grand Banks of the northwestern Atlantic Ocean south to North Carolina. The warm Gulf Stream flows northward from the coast of Florida, where it arises in the warm waters of the Florida Straits. This surface current generally follows the Carolinas coastline as it moves northward, turning eastward as it passes Cape Hatteras on its path toward the northeastern Atlantic Ocean. Eventually, the Gulf Stream provides the British Isles with a warmer climate than its far northern latitude deserves. These two currents influence the distribution of plants along the Carolinas coast by bringing species with more northern affinities southward and plants with southern affinities farther north than expected.
Extremes of climate, weather, natural processes and events such as storms affect the health, survival and sometimes the distribution of plants and plant communities. The Carolinas coastal environment is agreeable in many ways, but it is not constant. Because individual plants are confined to one site for their entire lifetime, they have evolved wide tolerances for environmental conditions and developed unique adaptations to disruptive events. These conditions include extremes of water availability (flooding and drought), extremes of temperature, wind and fire. Certainly, coastal storms present some of these factors all at once.
About North Carolina Sea Grant
North Carolina Sea Grant provides research, education and outreach opportunities relating to current issues affecting the North Carolina coast and its communities. Since 1970, North Carolina Sea Grant has prided itself on being a valuable resource for scientists, educators, local officials, government agencies, coastal businesses and the public to find unbiased, scientifically sound information about the state’s coastal ecosystems.
North Carolina Sea Grant facilitates funding for millions of dollars of research, outreach and education programs each year. Our initiatives and projects touch a broad range of topics, including fisheries, seafood science and technology, water quality, aquaculture, community development, law and policy, and coastal hazards