More than 60 years of intense study and debate have yet to resolve the origin of the Carolina Bays. Carolina Bays are circular to elliptical depressions located along the Gulf of Mexico and Atlantic Coastal Plains. Proposed processes of initiation and development of these karst-like features include meteorite impacts, substrate dissolution, wind, ice, marine waves and currents. Based on field studies throughout the Atlantic and Gulf Coastal Plains and on review of coastal plain literature, we propose that Carolina Bays initially developed as silica-karst features. During Pleistocene sea-level lowstands, water tables in the Atlantic Coastal Plain were up to 30 m lower than today. Large volumes of surface water collected in local topographic lows and/or areas of enhanced permeability and infiltrated through sandy substrates of the low-relief coastal plain. Localized infiltration of phreatic water induced extensive desilicification of the sandy and clayey substrates, resulting in volume loss and development of karst-like depressions. Particularly relevant to initial bay development was alteration of kaolinite to gibbsite, which can produce a 34-percent loss in clay material volume, and concurrent dissolution of iron oxide.
The initial silica-karst depressions along the Atlantic and Gulf coasts were later modified by eolian and, perhaps, ice-push processes, which enhanced their elliptical form. The subsequent Holocene rise in sea level caused ground-water levels in the coastal plain to equilibrate near the present-day land surface. This curtailed geochemical weathering, as well as eolian and ice-related processes. Ground-water saturation partially reversed chemical reactions associated with intensive weathering of clays beneath the bays, masking evidence of the severe leaching that occurred during their initial formation.
Silica-karst features, similar to Carolina Bays in their initial stages of development, are common geologic features. Moreover, silica-karst processes are active today in warm temperate, subtropical, and tropical areas in sandy substrates where groundwater levels are well below the ground surface and can cause subsidence or disrupt developing wetlands.