George A. Howard, 1997
North Carolina naturalist John Lawson stripped naked with his party in 1709 to cross a swamp he then called a "Thick Percoarson" * (Lawson, A New Voyage to Carolina). It may be that Lawson was struggling through what today we call a Carolina Bay. Since Lawson’s time, generations of observers have been frustrated and fascinated by the low, wet pocks in the ground scattered from Delaware to Florida. These shallow, oriented, depressions -- some filled with water and many named as lakes, most in a vegetated wetland state -- are unlike any other natural feature of the American landscape. Subtle when seen from the ground, dramatic unmistakable ellipses when viewed from the air, Carolina Bays define the front yard of America.
Yet, the process which created these wonderful features of our environment remains an open question. This paper will investigate the nature of the Carolina Bays, the obscure debate regarding their origin, and reveal new information that demands further study by the scientific community.
Please leave comments and observations in the albums below.
AGU Fall Meeting
Wednesday, December 16, 2009
Younger Dryas Boundary: Extratrrestrial or Not?
Please also see: Bob Kobres' page
A description of characteristics
Carolina Bays (so named for the profusion of Bay trees they support) are first distinctive because of their uniform nature. Unlike virtually any other bodies of water or changes in elevation (Kaczorowski), these topographical features follow a reliable and unmistakable pattern. Carolina Bays are circular, typically stretched, elliptical depressions in the ground, oriented along their long axis from the Northwest to the Southeast. As seen below, they are further characterized by an elevated rim of fine sand surrounding the perimeter which defines a unique interior ecosystem.
Conference poster concerning Carolina bay formation from the May 23-25, 2007
American Geophysical Union (AGU), Joint Assembly, Acapulco, Mexico
Though uniform in the broad sense, the Bays are dramatically different in the particulars of their measurements and hydrology. The length of Bays ranges from Lake Waccamaw, N.C., at 7 miles, to depressions only 200 feet long, with a median length of approximately 1/4 mile. The depth of Bays ranges from 0 to 23 feet below the elevation of the surrounding terrain. (Kaczorowski). Eyton and Parkhurst detail additional characteristics of Carolina Bays below:
The range and number of Carolina Bays are a significant (if crudely catalogued) factor in their description. Bays are identified along the entire range of the Mid-Atlantic Seaboard, from New Jersey to Florida, and increase in frequency to a highest concentration along the border of North and South Carolina.
Figure 2. The average of the "Long Axis" of multitudes of individual Carolina Bays all converge in certain locations
Figure 3. William Prouty's famous map of the range and elevation of bays on the geological terraces of the Atlantic Coastal Plain
Estimates of the total number of Bays within this range are from 500,000, to 2.5 million (if faint so-called "ghost" features are included.) Along the highest area of concentration, single counties are pocked with thousands upon thousands of Carolina Bays. Dr. Tom Ross of Pembroke State University is in the process of counting the Bays in Robeson County from Soil and Conservation Service soil maps. Ross's efforts, though still underway, have thus far yielded over 8,800 bays in Robeson County alone. (PC Tom Ross.)Geomorphic Origin
The precise geomorphologic process responsible for creating these extraordinary features has long been debated, and more than a dozen theories of origin are commonly cited in the Carolina Bay literature:
* marine theories include sand bar dams across drowned valleys (Glenn, 1895);
*swales in underwater sand dunes (Glenn, 1895);
*submarine scour by eddies, currents and undertow (Melton, 1934);
*progressive lagoon segmentation (Cooke, 1934);
*gyroscopic eddies (Cooke, 1940; 1954);
*fish nests created by the simultaneous waving of fish fins in unison over submarine artesian springs (Grant, 1945).
*subaerial hypotheses include artesian spring sapping (Toumey, 1848);
*peat burning by paleo-Indians (Wells and Boyce, 1953);
*eolian deflation and/or deposition (Raisz, 1934; Price, 1951, 1958, 1968;
*and Carson and Hussey, 1962);
*solution (Johnson, 1936; Lobeck, 1939; Le Grand, 1953; and Shockley and others, 1956);
*periglacial thaw lakes (Wolfe, 1953);
*wind deflation combined with perched water tables and lake shore erosion at a 90o angle to the prevailing wind (Thom, 1970);
*artesian spring sapping and eolian deposition (Johnson, 1936);
*and progressive lagoon segmentation modified by eolian processes stabilized by climatic changes (Price, 1951, 1958, 1968)
In general, however, the debate is properly divided into two camps: those who propose a number of terrestrial mechanisms operating together to form the Bays, and others who conclude that a single encounter with a space borne object best accounts for their unusual characteristics. The fifty odd year exchange between these two groups reveals a fundamental division of geological science and, indeed, other earth and human historical sciences. The question at hand is an old one: Are all earth's features and geological phenomena best explained by slow mechanisms, identifiable today and operating over long periods of time -- or is it reasonable to include dramatic, if seemingly rare, catastrophic events as punctuating factors in earth's evolution? The search for the origin of the Carolina Bays is heavily, and negatively, influenced by this wider dispute.The Debate Begins
The scientific dispute concerning the origin of Carolina Bays debate began ironically with the arrival of seemingly unrelated science, aerial photography.
In the 1930's, county by county aerial photographs were mandated by the Roosevelt Administration as part of the government's effort to provide stability and assistance to farmers in the Depression. (Savage p.21) When first examined, these photographs revealed to astonished Southern farmers and scientists alike an incredible array of elliptical, repeating patterns in the previously familiar landscape. It is easy to imagine the wonder expressed by the locals at the sight of the magnitude and symmetry of the Carolina Bays viewed from aerial photographs. These were structures that for generations had been regarded only as a peculiar nuisance. Many observers were quick to conclude that the depressions were obviously remnant scars from a collision of a number of bodies with Earth (Savage p. 21).
Figure 4. The image above kicked off the Carolina Bay debate in 1933.
An article from popular Harpers Weekly was typical of press reports that fired the nation's imagination:
This conclusion is fantastic even today. In the 1930's it was more striking. At the time, scientists were only beginning to come to grips with earth craters and impact evidence. Many geologists of the day were still taught that Meteor Crater in the Arizona desert was the only extant evidence, world-wide, of a large collision ever having taken place. Today, more than 300 craters are cataloged with additional features being regularly discovered.
Frank A. Melton and William Schriever of the University of Oklahoma were the first to mount an effort to locate conclusive evidence of multiple impacts in the Carolinas. Like William Prouty (the former Chair UNC Department of Geology and life long supporter and contributor to the "extraterrestrial" theory) their research was inconclusive. .
Field surveys were notable for their failure to locate any meteoritic material, or other features traditionally associated with meteor strikes (Ray Kaczorowski, 1977, Carolina Bays: A Comparison with Modern Oriented Lakes, p 25-35). The researchers, however, should not be faulted for their lack of determination. Hundreds of Bays were examined in difficult field conditions (Savage) and included detailed magnetometer surveys suggesting buried material in certain locations, but failing to locate samples or produce consistent results .
Obviously, the early extraterrestrial researchers had a problem on their hands. Though the Bays strongly suggested a causal link to energy directed from above, the science of the day demanded that at least some hard evidence of "rocks from space" be produced in order for their hypothesis to be accepted as conclusive. This evidence was never produced.
Though early reports of the Bays had caused excitement among the public, which readily accepted the strike hypothesis, other scientists joined to oppose the idea that Bays were anything more than atypical kaarst features, subject to and resulting from commonly recognized aeolian and solution processes (essentially unusual lakes formed by a combination of wind, water and waves.)
Chief among the critics of the collision theory was Douglas A. Johnson, who proposed his own hypothesis which Savage terms the "artesian-solution-lacustrine-aeolian" process. (Savage p. 53) Johnson envisioned a vast series of artesian springs from which water flowed after traveling under great pressure underground from the mountains to the coastal plain. These springs, according to Johnson, would have eroded the marl and unconsolidated sediments through which they flowed. The resulting pool of surface water would, as a result, appear steadily more elongated to the ground observer in response to the migrating source. Johnson then theorized a steady and consistent wind from the Northwest which would further "scallop out" the water body, creating the oriented, elliptical depressions we see today.
Johnson's theory, or variations of it, is still accepted today by most of the scientific community. It was particularly bolstered by what appears to be the last serious investigation of Bay origin, led in 1977 by Ray Kaczorowski. In his NASA funded report, "The Carolina Bays: A Comparison with Modern Oriented Lakes," Kaczorowski sought to debunk the impactual theory by providing the missing piece of the puzzle: Where in the world are analogous features which exhibit similar characteristics and exist under currently operating geomorphologic influences?
Kaczorowski found his similar features in three far flung corners of the Western Hemisphere: East Texas, Chile and the North Slope of Alaska. In each of these regions the researcher and his graduate assistants personally examined wind oriented lakes he postulated were Bays "in the making." Indeed, after returning home to Columbia, he rented a wind machine and proceeded to blow pools of water in a sandbox into faintly "Bay-like" shapes.
This study seems to have concluded the long and difficult dispute over the origin of Carolina Bays. Kaczorowski provided the proponents of terrestrial causation with similar features of supposedly similar formation, while the other camp was justifiably exhausted and weakened after years of derision for their failure to have located hard evidence, or even precisely describe the nature of the event which the Bays had intuitively suggested.
Carolina Bays northwest of Myrtle Beach, South Carolina
Others, however, were never as convinced as the general scientific and academic community that the wind theories of Johnson and Kaczorowski had adequately described the geomorphology of Carolina Bays. Henry Savage, in a carefully argued treatise befitting his occupation as a trial lawyer, banker, mayor and naturalist, found very little new in Kaczorowski's "evidence" of similar processes forming Bays around the world. His chief objection to Kaczorowski's conclusions called into question the researchers claim that other areas are truly analogous to Carolina Bays. In his book, The Mysterious Carolina Bays, he skillfully challenges the reliability of Kaczorowski:
Savage's points are good ones. It is difficult to understand how the study of Bay origin should suddenly cease, as it did, simply because someone had catalogued faintly similar features, formed in a context which is provably different. Various studies indicate that the environment at the time of Bay formation, broadly 10,000 to 20,000 years BP, hardly resembled the treeless windswept plains of the locales visited by Kaczorowski. (The Age and Trophic History of Lake Waccamaw, North Carolina, J. C. STAGER and L. B. CAHOON Department of Biological Sciences, University of North Carolina at Wilmington, Kobres PC.) Kaczorowski also failed to address numerous additional features unique to Carolina Bays, such as Bays within Bays, and Bays intersecting other Bays.
Fortunately, the search for the origin of Carolina Bays was not completely abandoned following Kaczorowski's flawed study and Savage's careful critique.
Robert Kobres, an independent researcher in Athens, Georgia, has studied Carolina Bays for nearly 20 years in conjunction with his larger interest in impact threats from space. His recent, self-published, investigations have profound consequences for Carolina Bay study and demand research by academia as serious, relevant and previously unexamined new information. The essence of Kobres' theory is that the search for "debris," and the comparison of Bays with "traditional" impact craters, falsely and naively assumes that circular craters with extraterrestrial material in them are the only terrestrial evidence of past encounters with objects entering earth's atmosphere.
The last twenty years have seen an explosion of evidence that earth has often encountered objects that profoundly alter our environment (Lewis, Rain of Iron and Ice ). For instance, it is now commonly accepted that an impact with a large object in the Gulf of Mexico caused the extinction of large dinosaurs -- a theory considered bizarre and irresponsible at the time Kaczorowski studied the Bays.
Kobres goes a logical step further by assuming that forces associated with incoming bodies, principally intense heat, should also leave visible signatures on the earth. And, finally, that physics does not demand that a "collision" of the bodies need necessarily occur to produce enormous change on earth.
To verify that such encounters are possible outside of the physics lab, we need look no further than the so-called "Tunguska event." On June 30, 1908, in the vicinity of the Tunguska River deep in Siberia, a tremendous explosion instantly leveled 2000 sq. km. of tundra, felling trees by the millions, all left pointing outward from a central area. News accounts of the day told of Londoners being able to read newspapers from the glow of the night sky for days afterward, and seismographs worldwide recording an apparent cataclysm in Siberia. Unfortunately (or fortunately as the case may be) the explosion had occurred in an area so remote, and during a time of such political turmoil, that no researcher pinpointed or even managed to travel to the suspected impact site for more than two decades.
Not until pioneer Russian meteoritic researcher Leonard Kulik managed to gain entry to the inhospitable area in 1927, did anyone but local tribesmen view the devastation and its peculiar nature.
(At the epicenter of the explosion lay not a large crater with a "rock" in it, as might be expected, but nothing more than a number of "neat oval bogs." The Tunguska literature generally mentions the bogs only in passing, since Kulik failed in digs there to locate any evidence of a meteorite and went on to examine other aspects of the explosion. Perhaps ironically, Melton and Schriver, around the same time and on the opposite side of the world, were fruitlessly searching their own "neat, oval bogs" for evidence of a meteor, neither apparently having the knowledge of Kulik's efforts, or vice versa.)
It is generally accepted today that the Tunguska event can only be attributed to a rare encounter with a "comet," or incoming body of such a nature that it left no stony or ferrous material, but simply vaporized and scorched the earth below in a rare display of high energy physics.
To explain the Bays, Kobres proposes a similar encounter, albeit of larger proportions and more accurately described as a "near miss." The "Kobres Event" proposes that a "comet," if you like, whipped past the Earth, exchanging enormous energy but not impacting directly to form a typical crater. It is demonstrable that such an encounter would show an intense flash of heat onto the ground below. This heat would have caused moister portions in the Pleistocene landscape to explode into steam, leaving the depressions in the ground that we know today as "Carolina Bays."
Kulik's "neat, oval bogs" in Siberian Russia, are then, to Kobres, logical analogies to the Carolina Bays: the result of intense heat causing the summer melt ponds of the area to explode and leave signature elliptical depressions.
Kobres' conclusion would be just another addition to the long list of formation theories had he not uncovered a previously unexamined analogy to the Carolina Bays. Completely absent from the controversy prior to his study is any comparison of so-called "maar" features with "Carolina Bays "
Found all over the world in volcanic areas, maar features are relatively well understood. Geologists consider them the result of a sudden encounter between moist ground and up-welling volcanic heat. In their particulars, Maar features resemble Carolina Bays more neatly than any lakes proposed by Kaczorowski.
"Maars" come in groups, some seeming to orient themselves in relation to others, with many (presumably more recent) Maars exhibiting the "rims" previously unique to Bays.
(The Cerro Colorado volcano, a maar feature in the Pinacate Volcanic Field of northern Mexico, presents this author with the clearest "cousin" to a typical Carolina Bay.)
Assuming the lack of any geologically recent volcanic activity on the North American Atlantic Coastal Plain, Kobres believes Maar features to have an analogous, not identical, nature to Carolina Bays. In this formulation, the "Bays" and the "Maars" are both signatures of powerful steam explosions, with the heat having come from different sources.
Put another way, Kobres believes Bays should be considered "top-induced" maars, formed by heat from above, as opposed to "true" Maars, which have volcanic and subterranean origins.
Another line of Kobres' investigation is enlightening, particularly to those puzzled by the seeming "arrangement" of Bays within inter-stream divides.
Large beavers, he supposes, created pools of water that efficiently collected radiant energy from the sky and suddenly exploded into super-heated steam.
The arrangement of Bays in many instances resembles the documented relation of beaver ponds to one another. If such an arrangement of large shallow ponds were visited by a sudden and scorching heat from above, one might conclude that the resulting explosions would leave relatively arranged "craters."
As incredible as this may seem, at first, no portion of this theory is impossible or even improbable. Like mammoth, large saber toothed cats, giant ground sloth and other now extinct Pleistocene mammals, giant beaver were residents of the Bay area in relatively recent times. Skeletons and remains of these enormous beasts are found all over the world, many dating to around the time of Bay formation, which generally coincides with the sudden global climatic transition from the Pleistocene to the Holocene age around 12,000 years ago.
Scientists have long puzzled over the apparent climate shift at this time (Younger Drayas). A relatively mild world of large mammals and abundant resources turned suddenly to a harsh clime as cold as the coldest times of the last Ice Age. The suddenness is most strikingly suggested by the frozen mammoth unearthed in Russia through the years. Some with flowering vegetative remains still in their stomachs.
It is not difficult to conclude in fact that Kobres' may have defined evidence of the event marking the dawn of the modern climatic age -- and the subsequent rise of agricultural man, who had to work harder than his Pleistocene ancestors to ensure a living.
Additional support for such a hypothesis is available from other reliable sources. I have culled from extensive readings of North Carolina's natural history, what could well be eyewitness accounts of the event itself.
Allow me to pass along the following accounts of legends passed down among Native Americans concerning the origin of the Bay lakes on whose shores they long lived:
Of Lake Mattamuskeet:
".....kneeling at a sacrificial alter, she prayed to the Great Spirit to save the brave and her perishing people. After her invocation, a star fell to the earth, and rain soon followed. Days and days of rain quenched the fire. Great holes burned in the earth by the fire were filled, forming a great inland sea." (Algonquin Indian legend, Touring the Backroads of North Carolina's Upper Coast, p.268)
Of Lake Waccamaw:
"The local Indians are known as the "People of the Falling Star," and they believed the lake was created by a falling star, perhaps a great meteorite." (Waccamaw-Siouan Indian legend, Wild Shores, Exploring the Wilderness Areas of Eastern North Carolina. p.150)
It is perfectly reasonable to conclude that if such a cataclysm occurred during a known time of known human habitation on the North American Atlantic Coastal Plain (approximately 10,000 -15,000 BP) legends would be told to relate the horror to future generations.
Kobres and a growing number of other researchers have assembled a variety of accounts from around the globe describing tremendous cataclysms directed from above.
From Chinese silks, to petroglyphs and the Holy Bible, hundreds of legends and holy scripts are easily interpreted as descriptive of comets and their sometimes awful consequences for the environment and humanity. The Carolina Bay event may well have only been one of many significant "impacts," though surely, due to its magnitude, it was the most significant in human memory.
Life in the Bays
In recent years, the geomorphologic debate detailed above has taken a back-seat to studies of the biology and natural wonders of Carolina Bays. (Thomas Ross, Comprehensive Carolina Bay bibliography).
In this sphere of study, the Bays are most notable for their "hydrological" characteristics and the diverse biota it supports. Carolina Bays are literally filled with life. Among the water dependent animal species commonly found in natural Bays are:
Great Blue Herons
Ornate Chorus Frog
(North Carolina Wild Places, 1997, North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission)
Carolina Bays also harbor numerous species adapted both to up and low-land; including white tailed deer, brown bear, bobcats and rattlesnakes. Plant life in the Bays is equally diverse, supporting a number of rare and endangered species, such as Long Leaf Loosestrife and Venus Flytrap .
It is hardly surprising then that the diversity is not limited to the visible world. Researchers at the University of Georgia announced in April, 1997, the discovery of previously unknown bacteria that grow and live in the Bay muck:
Previously Unknown Bacteria Discovered By University Of Georgia Researchers In Features Called Carolina Bays, University of Georgia Press Release, April 9, 1997
(Anomalous genetic variations have also been identified by recent investigators of the natural characteristics of the Tunguska area.)
Some even go as far as to link theories of extraterrestrial causation with the unique biological features:
(North Carolina Curiosities, 1990, Jerry Bledsoe, Glope Pequote Press, Second Edition)
Range and concentration of the carnivorous Venus Flytrap
Venus flytraps are found in only one location -- worldwide -- within 75 miles of Wilmington, North Carolina. This small region coincides neatly with the central axis of Carolina Bay occurrence .
The Good News
Fortunately, most undisturbed Carolina Bays are protected by one of the nation's strongest environmental statutes, Section 404 of the Clean Water Act. This Act, and subsequent regulatory interpretations, regulates the disposal into, and alteration of, jurisdictional "Waters of the United States."
For the purposes of the law, "Waters," has been interpreted to mean areas which are saturated in the uppermost foot of soil for a portion or all of the growing season (as little as 10 days in North Carolina). Virtually all Carolina Bays meet this criterion, and thus, in their natural vegetated state, are subject to a complex state and federal permitting system.
Federal wetland protection has been an unexpected boon for the conservation, and, particularly, restoration, of Carolina Bays. Because of their vast number and range, Carolina Bays are often unavoidably the subject of agricultural or infrastructure development, particularly highways. This has led to very recent efforts to restore Bays as "wetland mitigation banks." Wetland banks are a new and novel method of dealing with the conflicting societal needs to both develop and protect or restore certain lands.
Wetland banks sell wetland "credits" to off-set and compensate for unavoidable development in wetlands like Carolina Bays. For example, for each acre destroyed by the Department of Transportation in building or widening a road, a credit can be purchased to "mitigate" the loss as required to receive a permit.
North Carolina's first privately permitted mitigation bank is a 2200 acre ditched and drained Carolina Bay, the first phase of which will require the restoration of 690 acres from farm back to forest. Over 200,000 trees of 27 different varieties were planted at this site, and over 20 linear miles of ditches now draining the property were backfilled. The restoration, when complete, will produce approximately 220 federally authorized mitigation credits. Carolina Bays are well suited as wetland banks, they are natural "bathtubs" and the water in them can be more reliably controlled without flooding surrounding lands.
This process clearly improves the environment by requiring that 2 or mores acres are restored for every acre lost. It also allows the development of certain Bays when it has been proven to be absolutely necessary and there are no other reasonable options. This new development for Carolina Bays also offers an opportunity to collect a great deal more scientific data on their natural processes.
Dover Bay Wetland Restoration Site, Lenoir County, North Carolina
I have always maintained a strong interest in the unexplained parts of science and history. Most of the subjects I have encountered, however, do not promise an easy solution. In anthropology, there will always be another missing link, or in archaeology, another hole to dig. But in the small corner of research where Carolina Bays reside there seems plenty of reason to believe a definitive solution could be found at little expense.
Biological assays and efforts to conserve Carolina Bays are numerous (and increasing) but no work is underway to re-evaluate their genesis using modern methods and technologies. Geophysical researchers simply abandoned this line of study in the late 1970's, just before science was armed with some of its best tools. Contrast the last effort to model wind formation theories -- Ray Kaczorowski and his 1979 sand-box -- with the computational and graphical modeling programs available to today's university researchers. Or the crude 1950's ink drawings describing the range and orientation of Carolina Bays -- with today's advanced GIS and space based earth sensing equipment.
I firmly believe a properly equipped and modestly funded, multidisciplinary, modern day graduate lab could, if not solve the the problem outright, clearly dismiss one or the other camps of thought.
Given a confident belief that the answers are indeed out there in the sand, we come then to the true shame of the Carolina Bay story: the willingness of the current geophysical research community to tolerate and admit such a profound "mystery" in their midst. I've known respected professional earth scientists to brush off questions about Carolina Bay origin with references to "alien landings" and "giant fish." With prodding, they generally elicit a thin collage of wind and wave theory faintly recalled from their student years. One gets the distinct feeling that the study of Carolina Bay origin is the "crazy aunt in the attic" of the Coastal Plain researcher. And that visiting his dear relative is hardly worth the disturbing consequences.
Perhaps then it is not a lack of equipment, money, or even interest that relegates this subject to a mystery. The stakes may simply be too high for open-minded research in this field at this time. If it were revealed that these omnipresent features were indeed created suddenly around the time of the most recent extinction and climatic change, the "textbooks" would again need rewriting, and serious preparation and contemplation made for our future protection. It is disturbing to think that today's scientists, more than two hundreds years after the discovery of Carolina Bays, seem more reluctant than ever to step back and contemplate the whole of their mystery.
"Science ... warns me to be careful how I adopt a view which jumps with my preconceptions, and to require stronger evidence for such belief than for one to which I was previously hostile. My business is to teach my aspirations to conform themselves to fact, not to try and make facts harmonize with my aspirations."
--Thomas Huxley, 1860
Please see also: Bob Kobres' page