WMBF Investigates: What are the Carolina Bays?

HORRY COUNTY, SC (WMBF) - The Carolina Bays are a South Carolina mystery.

When looking at satellite photos, the ovals in Horry County forests certainly stick out.

"They are all orientated in the same direction. They have this northwest to southeast orientation," said James Fowler, a biologist with Heritage Preserve.

While they all have that same slant, they're different sizes and some even overlap. These elliptical depressions are typically several feet lower than the surrounding forest and can be thousands of feet in diameter.

It's estimated more than half a million of these geographic features — called Carolina Bays in Horry County — exist across the Mid-Atlantic states.

There are many theories about what caused the bays to form, but their origin is still a mystery. Everything from ancient fish beds and depressions created by the wind, to a meteorite that separated in the Earth's atmosphere before striking the Carolinas have been considered. None have been proven.

"Can't quite find the artifacts that they would or the remnants of the meteor shower to necessarily prove that one," Fowler said.

Some of the bays are considered wetlands and are protected by federal and state wetland regulations. Still, some local neighborhoods are built right around them.

The Lewis Ocean Bay Heritage Preserve situated between S.C. 31 and S.C. 90 in Horry County is home to at least 20 Carolina Bays. With such a rich history and unknown past, Fowler would like to see them protected.

"Hey, we need to set some of these aside because we don't know exactly everything about them," he said.

Extensive plant life thrives within the bays, including unique indigenous species like the Venus Fly Trap, only found in the Carolinas. Deer and bears also often call the bays home.

"We've had to go into some of these to find some GPS collars we've used to track some bears. They make little tunnels in there. It's like a little black bear hotel within a tunnel system," Fowler said.

While the bays have plenty of natural beauty, their location in Horry County can raise some concerns.

This part of the county is no stranger to fire and the remnants can still be seen there. Back in 2009, thousands of acres burned and numerous homes were destroyed in this area. Could the Carolina Bays have added fuel to those fires?

"They kind of release these chemicals and then I've heard locals call them gasoline bushes," Fowler said.

According to a fire report from the South Carolina Forestry Commission following the 2009 Horry County Fire, "the terrain consists largely of Carolina Bays with peat soils that contain highly flammable vegetation, including wax myrtle, bay trees, and other species."

It's times of drought where this peat layer within the bays can become a wildfire concern. Under normal conditions, the Carolina Bays typically have a swampy base, which reduces the fire risk.

"That peat layer, it acts as a sponge. So it stays really wet in there a lot of times. And so a lot of times the fire hits it and stops," Fowler said.

The South Carolina Department of Natural Resources has an extensively controlled burn regiment, which reduces underbrush and odds of an uncontrolled wildfire. They do not burn into the Carolina Bays though.

"That fire can get into that organic layer, kind of seem to be out for a couple weeks or maybe a month, then maybe the conditions get right again and next thing you know the fire jumps back up and it's burning again," Fowler said.

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