Foraminiferal analyses of 404 contiguous samples, supported by diatom, lithologic, geochronologic and seismic data, reveal both rapid and gradual Holocene paleoenvironmental changes in an 8.21-m vibracore taken from southern Pamlico Sound, North Carolina. Data record initial flooding of a latest Pleistocene river drainage and the formation of an estuary 9000 yr ago. Estuarine conditions were punctuated by two intervals of marine influence from approximately 4100 to 3700 and 1150 to 500 cal yr BP. Foraminiferal assemblages in the muddy sand facies that accumulated during these intervals contain many well-preserved benthic foraminiferal species, which occur today in open marine settings as deep as the mid shelf, and significant numbers of well-preserved planktonic foraminifera, some typical of Gulf Stream waters. We postulate that these marine-influenced units resulted from temporary destruction of the southern Outer Banks barrier islands by hurricanes. The second increase in marine influence is coeval with increased rate of sea-level rise and a peak in Atlantic tropical cyclone activity during the Medieval Climate Anomaly. This high-resolution analysis demonstrates the range of environmental variability and the rapidity of coastal change that can result from the interplay of changing climate, sea level and geomorphology in an estuarine setting.