Carolina Bays; A Peek Into a Violent, Prehistoric World

No telling what compelled John Lawson and his gang to strip naked and wade through tangled underbrush and into the murky water, but we know with the benefit of three hundred years’ hindsight that if he’d moved north or south a bit, he might have avoided the unpleasant plunge altogether.

The famed Lawson party, exploring the wilderness of the Colonial Carolinas, happened upon a Carolina Bay—an elliptical depression on the otherwise flat expanse of the coastal plain deep enough to collect and hold rain and groundwater. With the advent of aerial photography and, later, satellite imagery, researchers got a sense for just how prevalent these bays are—tens of thousands of them stretching from Florida to New Jersey. Some are just a few feet long, others nearly half a mile.

Lawson A New Voyage      Lawson A New Voyage Illustration

Above: John Lawson’s account of his trek through Colonial Carolina and some of the creatures he encountered there. Images courtesy North Carolina Collection, Wilson Special Collections Library, UNC-Chapel Hill. The full text of Lawson’s narrative and many other primary resources are available from Documenting the American South.

Bays NC

Above: An image from Google Earth around White Lake, NC showing the prevalence of Carolina Bays. Below: An image from Google Earth showing the faint outline of bays (called Delmarva Bays up north) that were long ago filled in and farmed. Here is a Google Earth aerial tour of Carolina Bays on YouTube.

Delmarva Bays

There are competing theories on the origin of Carolina Bays. The wildest hypotheses been debunked over the past century or so: artesian springs; the erosion of underlying limestone; schools of millions of fish fanning massive nests with their tails (when the sea level was higher); and, most outlandish of all, patterns from the motion of giant beavers or turtles.

A committed group of researchers clings to an extraterrestrial theory of origin. Not aliens, but rather the impact of one or more meteors over what’s now the Midwest, showering the prehistoric east coast with chunks of the exploded rock big enough to gouge out the bays. Among the evidence offered for this is that the axes of the bays all converge at a couple points in the Midwest.


Measurements of Carolina Bays’ axes that furnish evidence for a Midwestern cosmic impact. Image courtesy of Michael Davias,

But the generally accepted theory holds that the bays were windblown depressions that filled with water. They date, the evidence says, to 15,000 years ago or more when glaciers were fast retreating northward and the daily weather conditions were harsh. Conditions were bitter cold. The Laurentide Ice Sheet was only few hundred miles north. Hurricane-force winds blew for weeks on end. These were no dainty breezes; the gales were strong enough to move earth.

Flash forward to the (relative) present, and a calmer climate, and the Carolina Bays proved themselves nurseries for all manner of life, both animals and plants. In fact, the bays take their name not from the fact that they hold water but from the bay trees that flourish on their sandy southeastern rims. Native Americans visited bays often for the water, food and other resources they offered.


Above: LiDAR imagery of Carolina Bays in eastern North Carolina. Below: LiDAR imagery of Delmarva Bays on the Eastern Shore of Virginia. Images courtesy of Michael Davias, has dozens more LiDAR images of Carolina Bays, in addition to printed research about this phenomenon.


Of course, such an intricate tangle of wetland life was of little use for farmers and quite often hardscrabble homesteaders drained and cleared these bays so they could put them to the plow. All that’s left of many bays is the light streak of their onetime rim, visible from satellite imagery or on the ground as sandy soil crumbles in one’s hand. In other places bays have been co-opted for recreation, and rims that once abounded with bayside habitat now sports houses, docks and boats.

At most of these places, there’s little reflection on what bays once were.

But quite a few yet remain, from North and South Carolina up to the Delmarva Peninsula. At Bladen Lakes State Forest in North Carolina, trails meander around peaceful ponds— a peek into the fading remnants of a prehistoric world, a pleasant vista formed by a violent climate tens of thousands of years ago.

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Scenes from Bladen Lakes State Forest, home to several Carolina Bays.

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Scenes from White Lake, North Carolina, a Carolina Bay turned into a resort.



Above: Ground level on the sandy rim of former Carolina Bays. Top: Eastern Shore of Virginia. Bottom: N. Carolina

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Ubiquitous bay trees give Carolina Bays their name.


About Ben Swenson

Ben lives in Williamsburg, Virginia. He is writing a book on places of historic value that have been forgotten and are being reclaimed by nature. Abandoned Country is a companion blog to that project. You can contact him at
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4 Responses to Carolina Bays; A Peek Into a Violent, Prehistoric World

  1. Thomas Harris says:

    There is no biogenic detritus in any of the massive and expansive shallow subsurface sand layer where the structure of the bays and their rims are expressed. The monotonously uniform pure quartz sand grains are also angular to sub-angular in shape. Both of these well documented facts are in direct opposition to any wind and wave theory of origin for the Carolina bays, since conventional transport causes erosion and rounded surfaces on sand grains. There is also a set of these strange oval depressions in Nebraska, expressed in the same subsurface sand layer. Further, the 46,500 Carolina bays mapped so far using LiDAR all conform to just six archetype shapes, each of which is described identically by Suborbital Analysis. This is a clear indication of a suborbital transport mode for the sand.

    • DFI says:

      Could you just say “meteors”, and be done with it? Lol

      • Not “meteors”. That’s the whole point. The Carolina bays are not craters. The blanket of sand in which they are expressed certainly looks like an ejecta blanket, and their shapes are identical to suborbital ballistic targeting diagrams. This is because the governor of their transport and emplacement process was undoubtedly suborbital mechanics. The problem is that the scale of energy for that transport and emplacement figures to be as big or bigger than the Chixulub event that helped extinguish the dinosaurs (~10^22 to 10^25 J for the sand, vs 10^23 J for Chixulub: see

        The Carolina bays sand blanket is ~100 times more recent in history than Chixulub, during hominid evolution, which poses a major mystery: where is the giant impact structure or crater? The explanation is contained in the geographic range of the sand blanket and the orientation of the Carolina bays within. There is a large horizontal component in their distribution relative to the area that they all point back to. This implies a nearly horizontal or highly “oblique” impact, with an intermediate player in the transport of the quartz from the impact region to the vast area of sand emplacement (at least 400,000 sq. km). Ice sheet coverage of the impact area explains these details. Ice absorbs a high degree of kinetic energy (KE) upon astronomic impact, picking up very high temperatures and high velocities. This is especially true in a more oblique impact, where excavation is reduced but surface involvement is increased.

        The Carolina bay sand is also seeping hydrogen ( as would be expected after entrainment within a steam plasma expansion plume. Notice in that reference that the hydrogen concentration is greatest where the sand is thickest. The shocked ice sheet imprinted itself within the sand because hydrogen dissolves in solid quartz. The rate of that diffusivity depends on temperature, so it only takes a brief exposure at very high temperature (several seconds at tens of thousands of degrees K) to infuse the quartz with the fast moving ions (several or tens of km/s). If this were a simple story it would have been explained long ago.

        Only by embracing and reconciling the most confounding and counter-intuitive elements of the geologic imprint do we have any hope of decoding the processes that produced that imprint. The imprint is a snapshot of the process. We must simply be humble enough to accept the truth encoded within. As a further indicator, suborbital transport is also the only model that explains adjacent overprinting observed throughout the Carolina bays (see

        Craters, not at all. Ejecta blanket, yes. It is not easy to accept, but the evidence is plainly available within the imprint. The matter is simply one of accepting the truth as nature presents it.

  2. Thomas Harris says:

    Q: Why does quartz sand seep hydrogen? (not to mention, what’s the isotope ratio for deuterium amid that hydrogen?, among other possible further quantifiers)

    Q: Does the Yasothon Series sand of N.E. Thailand also seep hydrogen or other strangeness from its grains, melt crusted or otherwise?

    Q: How do the compositional profiles and statistics of grain morphology compare between these two possibly related regional-scale allochthonous depositional units from opposite sides of Earth?

    A: Time to study the sand….

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