If you’ve ever visited the Outer Banks of North Carolina, you’re undoubtedly familiar with the many fishing piers that dot the coastline from Kitty Hawk and Kill Devil Hills to the smaller communities along the Cape Hatteras National Seashore. One particular pier, however, is much lesser-known among both the locals that call the Outer Banks home and the thousands of tourists who come to enjoy a week of surf, sand and sunshine every season: the Duck Research Pier.
Stretching 1,840 feet into the Atlantic Ocean, the Duck Research Pier is part of the Research Field Facility, a coastal and hydraulics laboratory located on the northern Outer Banks. Unlike its counterparts that are situated farther to the south—such as the Kitty Hawk Pier, Avalon Fishing Pier, Nags Head Fishing Pier, Outer Banks Fishing Pier, Rodanthe Pier and Avon Pier—the Duck Research Pier is not open to the public and doesn’t permit anglers to set up shop on its planks as they cast a line and search for the catch of the day. Instead, the Duck Research Pier was established by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in 1977 with the purpose of advancing coastal knowledge by allowing scientists to gather and analyze data regarding area wave action, winds, currents and tides.
Located less than one mile to the north of downtown Duck, a quaint Outer Banks community that is best-known for its wide array of waterfront shops and restaurants, winding boardwalk and picturesque town park, the Field Research Facility and Duck Research Pier sit atop a large, undeveloped plot of land that the U.S. Navy used as a bombing range and target testing site from 1941 and 1965—decades before the barrier island community became such a popular vacation destination among visitors from across the country. In fact, multiple signs can be spotted on both the oceanside and the soundside of N.C. Highway 12 in Duck to warn travelers of the potential dangers posed by the remnants of old practice bombs and other munitions that were dropped by military aircraft along the beaches and sand dunes of this stretch of the Outer Banks back when it was almost entirely isolated.
The concept for the Duck Research Pier—which is composed of concrete and cost approximately $7.5 million to construct—as well as its accompanying Field Research Facility were originally proposed in 1963 by Rudolph Savage, who worked as the chief of the research division at the Coastal Engineering Research Center. The structure was designed to serve as a platform that would assist researchers in measuring nearshore wave action, currents, water levels and bottom elevations—particularly during the severe storms that frequently strike the coast of North Carolina. In addition to an automated rain gauge that measures on-site precipitation, approximately 30 to 40 Baylor gauges are deployed along the sides of the Duck Research Pier at any given time in order to track incoming waves as they approach the beach and to measure wave height. The Duck Research Pier’s most famous piece of equipment, however, is a three-wheeled instrument called the “CRAB,” a 35-foot-tall tripod seafarer with the ability to easily roll along the beach, over the sand dunes and out into the deep water surrounding the pier as it gathers data and performs measurements.
The Duck Research Pier and Field Research Facility employ a permanent staff of 11 people, including oceanographers, computer specialists and technicians. The expertise of these scientists and researchers, coupled with the wide array of high-tech instruments utilized at the facility and along pier itself, have provided a wealth of important information over the past several decades that has helped to improve emergency responses to severe storms and coastal flood hazards—and ongoing studies will continue to provide the data and analyses necessary to better predict the threats posed to the beaches of the Outer Banks by tropical storms, nor’easters and hurricanes for many years to come.