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What are Barrier Islands?

We all know that Georgia's barrier islands are beautiful - but what exactly are they? As the name "barrier island" suggests, these landforms act as a layer between the ocean and the mainland. They can span over 100 miles and are often found in chains along the coastline, separated from neighboring barrier islands only by narrow tidal inlets.

Read on to learn more about the ecosystem and purpose of barrier islands, and the best barrier islands to visit in Georgia.

Barrier Island vs. Island

Many people get confused by the term barrier island and don't understand how this landform differs from any other type of island. An island is a piece of land that is fully surrounded by water. Some islands, like Hawaii, are formed by volcanoes. These are called oceanic islands. Others formed when Earth's shifting continents broke apart over time - these are called continental islands. Greenland and Madagascar are both examples of continental islands. 

Barrier islands are a specific type of island that lie parallel to the coastline of a larger mainland. They are separated from shore by a bay, lagoon or sound and because of where they are situated, they protect the coast from being directly impacted by storm waves or winds. This is another reason they've earned the title "barrier islands."

Formation & Ecosystem

Barrier islands form in a variety of ways. Some formed because of powerful ocean currents that piled sand on top of sandbars over time. Others date back to the ice age - a product of melting glaciers and rising sea levels. 

One side of a barrier island faces the ocean. On this side, you'll find beautiful beaches and ocean views. This side of a barrier island takes the brunt of storm forces during hurricanes and other weather events. While many prefer barrier island beaches, the other side of these islands can also be quite interesting. Dunes, barrier flats and salt marshes - all closer to the mainland - are home to a variety of plants and wildlife. This side of a barrier island can be a great place to spot birds, crabs and more.

Interestingly, barrier islands are constantly changing shape. Storms, waves, winds, sea level changes and more all impact the formation of a barrier island. Waves and storms can erode dunes and currents can move sand from one end of the island to another. While you may not notice these changes from day to day, the impact of these conditions can really add up over time. 

Georgia's Barrier Islands

Georgia has 14 major barrier islands - four of which are found in the Golden Isles. St. Simons Island, Little St. Simons Island, Sea Island and Jekyll Island are some of Georgia's most beautiful vacation destinations. Loved by visitors, all of these barrier islands feature stunning beaches on the seaward side, alongside attractions, restaurants, hotels and more. Each island has its own unique personality, from the laid-back Jekyll Island to the luxurious Sea Island. 

Plan your visit to the Golden Isles today to see Georgia's barrier islands firsthand!