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The Albemarle-Pamlico Region

marsh and beach

What is the Albemarle-Pamlico Region?

The Albemarle-Pamlico estuarine system is made up of six river basins that flow into the sounds. The Pasquotank, Chowan, and Roanoke basins utlimately flow into Albemarle Sound, while the Tar-Pamlico and Neuse empty directly into Pamlico Sound.  Rivers of the White Oak basin flow to the Albemarle-Pamlico estuary's southern sounds, including Core, Back, and Bogue.    Each river basin boasts unique and valuable natural resources.  

Basins and Rivers

The watershed of the Albemarle-Pamlico estuarine system encompasses portions or all of six major river basins - the Neuse, Roanoke, Tar-Pamlico, Chowan, Pasquotank, and White Oak. Besides rivers, streams, sounds and marshes, the region includes the fields, forests, cities, and towns that surround them. All the water flowing across this landscape - rain and melted snow - eventually drains into the estuary. The N.C. Office of Environmental Education maintains educational materials for each of North Carolina's River Basins, including booklets, interactive Storymaps, GIS resources, and more.

Learn more about North Carolina's River Basins

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The North Carolina coast didn't always look as it does today, and the Outer Banks have not always existed. Over millions of years, the sea has advanced and retreated. At the end of the earth's last ice age 18,000 years ago, the shoreline was located as much as 40 miles east of today's Outer Banks. During the warmest periods some 85 million years ago, the Albemarle-Pamlico shoreline retreated as far as today’s Interstate 95. Evidence of these changes can be seen today. You can follow sandy ridges of ancient coastlines—called scarps—throughout the Coastal Plain and find seashells imbedded in riverbanks far inland. By contrast, on some ocean beaches, the breaking waves churn up vintage tree stumps and layers of organic peat, the remnants of submerged woodlands.

Sea level was as much as 250 feet lower about 18,000 years ago. The area that is now Pamlico Sound was dry land covered with the type of plants found today only in much colder regions. Ancient rivers like the Neuse traveled in deep channels. As global climate warmed and chunks of polar ice melted back into the oceans, sea level began rising again. The rising Albemarle-Pamlico estuary drowned the forest, and the advancing ocean built up an unusually high sand ridge that has remained above sea level. That 160-mile-long ridge is the Outer Banks.

Most barrier islands moved landward during the last period of sea level rise, staying relatively close to the mainland. Though barrier islands are common along low-lying coastlines of the world, parts of the Outer Banks are unique in their long distance from the mainland. Spans of up to 40 miles separate the banks from the estuary's western edge. The enclosure formed by the banks makes the Pamlico Sound the largest embayed estuary in the world. The sound is nearly 100 miles from north to south and more than 25 miles wide in some places. Indeed, early European explorers searching for a shortcut to the Orient mistook the immense body of water for the Pacific Ocean.

Geologists do not agree on exactly when the banks were formed. It probably happened during the last period of rapid sea level rise between 3,500 and 5,000 years ago. Ocean levels have been comparatively stable since then. Barrier islands have survived additional rises in sea level (about 1 foot per century) by migrating landward—in effect, they roll over. Water washing over from the ocean carries and deposits new sediment to build up the land on the sound side. The Outer Banks have migrated as much as 50 miles inland since their formation.

Islands also move laterally—currents parallel to shore transport beach sand, causing some inlets to shift. Inlets shift continually, and areas of shoals and deltas constantly change location. Where Cape Hatteras elbows its way into the Atlantic, the shallow, treacherous Diamond Shoals stretch at least 15 miles seaward. Such shoals extending beyond the North Carolina capes created a navigational nightmare that had devastating consequences for early mariners. Skeletons of hundreds of sunken ships are still buried in this "graveyard of the Atlantic."

Settlement and History

Settlement and History

Humans have lived on the North Carolina coast for at least 14,000 years. This area was one of the last places reached by the people who came to the American continent via a land bridge across the Bering Sea. The Stone Age Carolinians arrived as nomads, tracking beasts like the woolly mammoth, and eventually developed into the settled cultures now known as Native American.

Algonkian Indians, a large population of Native Americans who occupied coastal areas from Canada to North Carolina, lived in the Albemarle-Pamlico region since at least 1000 A.D. The Algonkians lived along the shores of the estuary, growing beans, corn, gourds and tobacco, and fishing and hunting. Tuscarorans occupied more inland parts of the northern Coastal Plain, and the Siouan lived south of the Neuse River.

Europeans—first the Spanish, then the English—tried to colonize the North Carolina coast in the 16th century. Well before the English established their first permanent New World settlement at Jamestown in 1607, they made several attempts to establish a colony in northeastern North Carolina. Between 1584 and 1587, they visited several times and left members of their ranks to construct a fort at the northern tip of Roanoke Island where they installed of a group of 116 men, women and children in 1587. This homestead might have succeeded if delivery of supplemental provisions had not been delayed for three years. When English reinforcement arrived in August of 1590, the settlers had vanished and their whereabouts were never discovered. They are still referred to today as the “Lost Colony.” Though these colonists did not establish the first permanent address, it is because of them that the Albemarle- Pamlico region can truly claim to be the cradle of Colonial America.

In 1621, colonists began settling the area that is modern-day Virginia Beach. The first permanent settlement in North Carolina was the town of Edenton, whose beginnings are traced as far back as 1655. Permanent European settlers began arriving along the Chowan River in the mid-1600s via inland corridors from Virginia. Town of Bath became the state’s first incorporated town in 1705, followed by Edenton in 1722, and New Bern and Beaufort in 1723.

The settlers brought major changes to the land and quickly displaced its native people. The ravages of disease and war reduced the population of Native Americans in eastern North Carolina to less than 5,000 by the end of the Tuscarora Wars in 1714. The Native American population prior to 1600 had been estimated at 300,000.

The Europeans also practiced intensive agriculture and forestry. They felled vast forests for timber and naval stores like tar, pitch and turpentine. Virtually all of the original 4 million acres of longleaf pine forests were timbered and converted. The settlers caught millions of pounds of shad, sturgeon and herring during the annual spring runs of these migrating fish. They also ditched and drained thousands of acres of wetlands to dry the land for farming.

Because of the lack of any deepwater ocean ports, most ports lay along inland rivers. Today’s U.S. Highway 17, also referred to as “the Ocean Highway” or “the King’s Highway,” skirts picturesque towns that were major river ports of the 18th century, including Washington, Hertford, Edenton and Elizabeth City.

In 1805, a canal was built through the Dismal Swamp to connect the Pasquotank River and Albemarle Sound with Norfolk and the Chesapeake Bay in Virginia. Elizabeth City, at the head of the Pasquotank, quickly became a major trade center. It remains an important hub of commerce and the largest city in northeastern North Carolina with a population of 18,683 (U.S. Census, April 2010).

The first communities on the Outer Banks oceanfront sprang up around lifesaving stations that lent aid to wrecked ships and stranded passengers. The U.S Lifesaving Service, the predecessor of the U.S. Coast Guard, built seven stations on the Banks in 1874 to hold boats and rescue gear and quarters to house crewmen. These buildings and the lighthouses, whose beacons helped orient ships at sea, were the first man-made structures on the beach. Around the same time, the banks became a destination for northern industrialists, who purchased thousands of acres of land for waterfowl hunting clubs in Currituck and Dare counties.

Following the Civil War, the beach at Nags Head also became a destination for inland vacationers who arrived by steamboat from Elizabeth City. Well-to-do planters built cottages on the beach, expanding a sound side vacation community established in the 1830s. The construction of the first bridges and highways in the 1920s and 1930s made beach trips a less exclusive pastime. A bridge connected Roanoke Island and Nags Head in 1927, and another crossed Currituck Sound to the Banks north of Kitty Hawk in 1931. By 1953, a bridge linked Roanoke Island to the mainland, and the modern development of the Banks began.

Today the largest city entirely within the Albemarle-Pamlico region is Raleigh, with 403,892 people (U.S. Census, April 2010). Another metropolitan area in the watershed is Virginia Beach, whose southern portion lies within the Albemarle-Pamlico drainage and includes 437,994 people (U.S. Census, April 2010). The largest year-round population on the Outer Banks is in Kill Devil Hills, with 6,683 people (U.S. Census, April 2010).

Human Impacts

Human Impacts

Since Europeans first settled the Albemarle-Pamlico region, it has been cleared, plowed, planted, forested, ditched, dredged, filled, dammed and mined. Humans continue to reshape and develop the landscape in ways that affect the health and beauty of surrounding waters. As the region's population increases, its aquatic resources will come under increasing strain without concerted efforts to protect and restore them.  Below, we list a few of the major impacts human activity can have on the sounds.

  • Nonpoint source pollution comes from rainwater that runs over the land.  This water can contain contaminants including fertilizer and pesticides from agricultural, silvicultural, and lawn use; disease causing organisms from animal waste and malfunctioning septic systems; motor oil and metals from roads and parking lots; and mud from construction sites.
  • Nutrient pollution, caused by excessive inputs of nitrogen and phosphorus to rivers and estuaries, stimulates the overgrowth of algae (“blooms") and contributes to fish kills. A dinoflagellate, Pfiesteria piscicida, which in one of its toxic life stages attacks and kills fish in the estuary, also is stimulated by such nutrient pollution.
  • Eroded sediment due to intensified agriculture and urban development also increases water pollution—soil particles not only bind to and carry other pollutants, they also clog the gills of fish, smother bottom-dwelling animals, and block light from important aquatic grasses.
  • Draining and filling of wetlands for farms, planted forests, and residential and commercial building sites have contributed to declining habitat for many plants and wildlife—including recreationally and commercially caught fish—throughout the Albemarle-Pamlico region. Wetlands are important in providing flood control, critical habitat and water purification.
  • Rapid conversion of many natural features to paved or hard “impervious” surfaces escalates all the existing threats to water quality. Such surfaces include parking lots, driveways, rooftops and sidewalks. Polluted runoff has a striking effect on estuarine waters in the Albemarle-Pamlico region, including the contamination of shellfishing waters. The immediate impacts are apparent after it has rained. Because of pathogens washed into estuaries during storms, state agencies frequently close shellfishing areas to harvest to protect human health. These areas include oyster, clam and scallop beds. Besides these temporary closings, nearly 20 percent of the Albemarle-Pamlico estuary is indefinitely closed to shellfish harvesting, including all areas within a certain distance of wastewater treatment plants, stormwater pipes and marinas. Runoff polluted by human or animal waste makes shellfish potentially unsafe for human consumption. Potential disease-causing organisms in the water come from a variety of sources: urban stormwater, improperly designed or managed animal waste facilities, failing wastewater treatment systems, broken sewer lines, leaking septic tanks, and wastes from wildlife and pets.