FOLLY BEACH − The signature landmark of the Lowcountry coast, the Morris Island Lighthouse, fascinates in no small way because it's stranded out to sea. But it might just come back ashore.
Sand tends to plume off the east tip of Folly Beach in a curious reverse eddy flow because of the inlet dynamics there. The plumes whirl across Lighthouse Inlet in waves and attach to Morris Island on the other side. It's partly why at times the sandbar shallows from the island beach seem to stretch straight to the lighthouse.
If they build up enough, the lighthouse would be back on the beach where it once stood.
A reattachment isn't a sure thing. Morris Island still loses sand to coastal erosion that is exacerbated by the Charleston jetties partly damming that north to south flow. In order to reattach the lighthouse, the reverse flow would have to carry more sand than the erosion takes, cumulatively, for a long time.
Meanwhile, the popular inlet beach at Folly would lose it. And the lighthouse wouldn't be likely to stay put for too long, not with sea rise and the meandering nature of barrier islands.
Morris, like most Lowcountry beaches, is a barrier island, really not much more than a big sandbar sifting and sliding through the surf. The islands don't sit still. Sands erode and pile up downstream, moving the bar. Beaches near inlets — most Lowcountry beaches — are notoriously prone to accreting, adding sand, or eroding, losing it.
A Landsat satellite time lapse sequence from 1984 to 2012 suggests Morris Island is accumulating sand from the flow, at least in recent years. And in its 2009 State of the Beaches report, the S.C Health and Environmental Control noted in recent years the inlet beach on Folly has been highly erosional.
Despite a loss of that lost-at-sea cachet, having the lighthouse back where people could walk up to see it would be a good thing, said Al Hitchcock, chairman of Save The Light, a nonprofit group that bought the lighthouse in 1999 and is working to restore it.
But he doesn't expect it to happen. The first lighthouse was built on the island in the 1800s. By the mid-20th century, erosion had left the current-day lighthouse at the beach's edge and slowly being cut off. In the 1980s, when Hitchcock took his first trip out to it, setting anchor on the Morris Island side of the inlet meant dropping it 15 feet deep.
Now it's waist deep, but "two years ago you could walk out there at low tide. In the next two years, you could have a channel cutting through," he said. "I think the eddies off the jetties are going to keep working in there to keep that beach from building."
The reverse flow is an aspect of "drumstick" barrier islands. It occurs at Hunting Island near Beaufort, Bulls Island in Cape Romain and Isle of Palms. At some spots on the coast, as much as 1,000 feet of sand have accreted in as little as a decade or two, said Tim Kana, Coastal Science and Engineering president, who cautioned he has not studied Lighthouse Inlet and can't speak to the situation there.