The Albemarle-Pamlico Estuary
With over 3,000 square miles of open water, the Albemarle-Pamlico estuary is the second largest estuarine complex in the United States’ lower 48 states. The estuary includes two major sounds, the Albemarle and the Pamlico, and six smaller sounds (Back, Bogue, Core, Croatan, Currituck, and Roanoke). Water from 43 counties in North Carolina and 38 counties and cities in Virginia drains into the estuary, a watershed area approximating 31,000 square miles. The watershed is drained by several major river systems, including the Pasquotank, Chowan, Roanoke, Tar-Pamlico, Neuse and White Oak. They discharge freshwater largely into the western side of the sounds.
The sounds of the Albemarle-Pamlico system are characterized by wind-driven tides that affect circulation patterns in the sounds and saltwater concentrations in their tributaries. In contrast to lunar tides, wind tides are more variable and contribute to unpredictable changes in water levels and erosion patterns along the coast. On the eastern side of the sounds, a chain of islands with only a few inlets form a barrier with the Atlantic Ocean. These are widely known as North Carolina’s Outer Banks and are a popular vacation destination for the nation.
The Albemarle-Pamlico estuarine system supports an array of ecological and economic functions that are of regional and national importance. Both the lands and waters of the estuarine system support rich natural resources that are intertwined with regional industries including forestry, agriculture, commerical and recreational fishing, tourism, mining, energy development, and others. The critical importance of sustaining the estuarine system was reflected in its Congressional designation as an estuary of national significance in 1987.