Barrier Island Superlatives

On March 1, 2012 · 6 Comments

I have a thing for islands. I think you already know that (e.g., St. Martin, Madeline, Beaver, Azores, Dry Tortugas, Vinalhaven, and so on). Barrier island fascinate me in particular. These narrow landforms can be found hugging coastlines all over the world, their sand continuously sculpting by tides, winds and waves according to the elements. They’re ephemeral and they change. This left me to wonder about superlatives. Length? Chains? Erosion? Height?

Longest Barrier Island

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Behold Padre Island’s impressive length. It stretches 113 miles (182 kilometres) from Corpus Christi, Texas to the town of South Padre Island. That’s long enough to make it the second largest coastal island in the Lower 48 United States in spite of its diminutive width. Only Long Island, New York covers more square mileage. Padre Island doesn’t confine itself to a single county either. No, it takes five counties to contain it: Cameron, Kenedy (three cheers for Kenedy), Kleberg, Nueces and Willacy. Somehow I imagine that all of the college students who travel to Padre Island for spring break don’t understand or appreciate that awesome fact.

Longest Barrier Island Chain

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The longest chain of barrier islands is a little more difficult to answer. According to the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) "Our Amazing Planet," there are 2,149 barrier islands worldwide. That’s a lot more than previously understood. It’s also worth noting that fact because the longest chain wasn’t even recognized as such until a recent re-examination of barrier islands.

… the world’s longest chain of barrier islands [is] along a stretch of the equatorial coast of Brazil, where spring tides reach 23 feet (7 meters)… The 54-island chain extends 355 miles (571 kilometers) along the fringe of a mangrove forest south of the mouth of the Amazon River. Past surveys didn’t recognize it as a barrier island coast partly because older, low-resolution satellite images didn’t show a clear separation between the islands and mangrove… but also because the chain didn’t match the wave-tide criteria used to classify barrier islands in the United States, where most studies have been conducted.

Fastest Retreat

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According to the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), the fastest retreat amongst barrier islands at the moment is happening in the Arctic, where apparently a quarter of all barrier islands are located. Traditionally they’ve been protected by permafrost and sea ice (so the barriers have barriers in a sense). However, they get pounded by waves and storms now as their protective shells begin to melt away due to climate change. Barrier Islands along the Beaufort Sea are eroding at levels several times the rate of islands elsewhere.

Highest Elevation

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I don’t have a good answer for this one. Barrier islands are composed of sand. They will have fairly low elevations by their very nature as they absorb a constant barrage of winds and waves. Sand dunes generally form upon them at the top of the backshore. Jockeys Ridge on North Carolina’s barrier islands, the Outer Banks, is "the tallest natural sand dune system in the Eastern United States." It reaches an elevation of about 100 feet (30 metres). I’m sure there are many contenders for the title so let me pose this one example and see how many 12MC readers can beat it. Please make sure it’s an actual barrier island, though.

It was very difficult to find barrier island superlatives because islands, in general, they tended to drown it out in search engine queries. Can anyone document other superlatives?

On March 1, 2012 · 6 Comments

6 Responses to “Barrier Island Superlatives”

  1. Orion P. says:

    Well Jockeys Ridge isn’t on a barrier island. It attached to the long spit of land that reaches out from VA down through Back Bay NWR and False Cape SP.

    • I stand corrected. One strong hurricane away from being a leading example, though. 😉 In other words: "Bodie Island … is a long, narrow barrier peninsula that forms the northernmost portion of the Outer Banks of North Carolina. The land that is most commonly referred to as Bodie Island was at one time a true island, however the inlet separating it from the Currituck Banks peninsula in the north closed. As a result, the Currituck Banks and Bodie Island are now one contiguous peninsula, joined together at the Nags Head area, where the inlet once flowed." Theoretically, what was once a barrier island could someday become a barrier island again. However, technically, it is NOT an island today.

  2. Phil Sites says:

    I wonder if the Outer Banks (esp. the area around Cape Point) is the furthest a barrier island gets from its associated mainland. I’ve only been to Kitty Hawk, but I imagine if you go out further it truly feels like your on a remote strip of land, surrounded on both sides by water as far as the eyes can see…

  3. Joe says:

    One sentence in your article got me thinking and searching, “Only Long Island, New York covers more square mileage.” I am well aware of Long Island and have said the name countless times, but never really thought of it as a true island. After all, it is only bordered on 3 sides by the Atlantic with the East River comprising the other border. My search for an explanation led me to a NY Times article referring to a debate from several years ago that referenced a court case in the 1980s where the Supreme Court considered it to be a Peninsula for the context of the case, although all parties still agreed that it was an island (

    Despite that, I still don’t get why it is an island since it has a river as a border. Using that same logic, the entire eastern US is an island as the Mississippi River is connected to the gulf, the Illinois River is connected to the Mississippi, the Illinois is connected to the great lakes which connect back to the Atlantic. Can somebody set this uninformed reader straight?

    • January First-of-May says:

      It isn’t – the channel in question is man-made (Chicago’s Sanitary Canal IIRC).
      However, a large part of South America, including all of the Guyanas, would be, thanks to the Casiquiare canal (which, despite what its name suggests, is completely natural).
      I’m still not getting the logic, though – if Long Island is a peninsula, what the triangular heck would Manhattan be? (And what about Staten Island?)

  4. Peter says:

    Despite that, I still don’t get why it [Long Island] is an island since it has a river as a border.

    The East River is not a river, it’s an arm of the Atlantic Ocean.

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