Published: October 2013 Southern Boating
© 2013 Troy Gilbert
Stringing along the Mississippi Gulf Coast is a series of undeveloped barrier islands that make up a large portion of the Gulf Islands National Seashore and are an unheralded and stunning cruising ground known mostly to locals. A major line of defense during hurricanes, these pristine islands are rapidly eroding into the Gulf of Mexico, but a nearly $500M effort by the Army Corps of Engineers seeks to reverse this trend.
While intense hurricanes and cold fronts that stir up the Mississippi Sound contribute to the erosion of these narrow, sandy islands, the primary culprits have been the multiple shipping channels dug ever wider and deeper in order to accommodate modern shipping. These channels act as sand sinks and destroy the natural process of sand transported in the water column from east to west by the predominate currents and winds and that historically replenished the islands.
Understanding the role and importance of these barrier islands as speed bumps during hurricanes, Dan Brown, Park Superintendant for the Gulf Islands National Seashore states, “For decades, we had a limited understanding of barrier island systems. It wasn’t until researchers started documenting and correlating the deepening of these channels to their land loss that we began to understand what was happening.”
Home to an incredible history dating back to their discovery by the French in the late 1600’s as well as a diverse and important ecosystem including major nesting grounds for seabirds and turtles, the erosion rate for these islands is astonishing. Ship Island, which was split in two by Hurricane Camille in 1969 has diminished by nearly 65% since it was documented in 1917. Petit Bois Island which naturally broke off of Dauphin Island in the 1800’s, has eroded by over 50% in the same time frame. The real concern grew over the last few decades as the rate of erosion has increased exponentially on the majority of the islands and diminished the storm protection for Mississippi’s coast.
The project is part of the Mississippi Coastal Improvements Program initiated after Hurricane Katrina and the first phase was completed in 2012 with the restoration of nearly 300 feet of beach shoreline along the northern portion of West Ship Island. Work is expected to commence on rejoining East and West Ship Islands in 2014 and reunite these islands initially separated by Hurricane Camille and then worsened in Hurricane Katrina.
Further studies are nearing completion as to how better to use the dredge from these important shipping channels and reintroduce this sand into the natural water transport system that repairs and replenishes these beautiful ecosystems and cruising grounds.
* PHOTOS OF HORN ISLAND ARE AVAILABLE HERE
– A full feature story on cruising Mississippi’s Gulf Islands coming April 2014 in BoatU.S. Magazine.