Where has all the good sand gone?

By Mackenzie Nelson

Sandy coves offer protected areas for coastal recreation. Photo credit: Mackenzie Nelson.

It was a badge of honor, a trophy of a summer well-spent. The sand that collected on the floor of my car and hid in the crevices between the seats indicated how I had taken advantage of my proximity to the beach. I let it follow me home, sticking to the bottoms of my feet as I would make my way through the dunes at the end of a day in the sun. I considered vacuuming it out, but the nostalgia it invoked compelled me to leave it where it fell. Meanwhile, I had no idea I was hoarding a valuable world commodity.

As sand erodes from coastlines, coastal homeowners in California must find ways to protect their properties from being swallowed up by the Pacific Ocean. Photo credit: Mackenzie Nelson.

Many of us are familiar with the issues of sea level rise and erosion. Coastal development along the shores of oceans and rivers are at risk of being overtaken by encroaching bodies of water. Sandy beaches act as a soft barrier between the terrestrial world and the nearby rivers, lakes, or oceans—a golden gateway to coastal recreation. However, sand has uses beyond this.

Silicon dioxide, or silica, is a major component of sand and is used to make microchips for various technologies, create glass products, facilitate fracking, and is utilized in materials for construction. In fact, it is this last use that makes sand such a highly demanded material worldwide.

Coastal sand mining and sand dredging lead to a variety of environmental issues. Its removal not only disturbs sandy beach ecosystems, but also changes the geography of local areas and disrupts how the physical forces that create sandy beaches interact. Beaches are the result of the balance between erosion and deposition processes. Waves, wind, currents, rivers, and streams naturally supply sediment to the “sediment budget” of the coastal area. These same processes distribute sand along the shoreline, allowing it to settle into the carved-out bays and coves of coastal areas. Taking large quantities of sand away from these systems suddenly increases erosion rates while the supply is being transformed for other purposes.

Sandy beaches offer space for coastal recreation. Photo credit: Mackenzie Nelson.

As urban development continues to increase, so does the demand for construction—especially in Asian countries. Construction projects primarily use one material in large quantities to make concrete building blocks and asphalt: sand—and not just any sand. The desert dunes of the Middle East create sediment that is too soft for construction purposes, but sand from deposits, riverbeds, and beaches are rough and angular so the particles stick together easily. Throughout much of the world, contractors are required to have government approval via a license to extract sand from such sources, however, this approval process takes a long time. In order to meet demand and make a quick profit from the easily accessible resource, illegal sand mining is dominating the sand industry.

Generally, sand extraction is poorly regulated worldwide. While activities in coastal waters of the United States are overseen by the US Army Corps of Engineers and local governments, there is less regulation in other regions. In India and Asia, sand smugglers and the sand mafia control much of the international trade of this commodity.

Sandy beaches act as a barrier between bodies of water and nearby development. Photo credit: Mackenzie Nelson.

So what? The issue is greater than just having less sand for our shorelines. The barrier we rely on to protect our life on land from the energy of nearby bodies of water is being permanently packed into new buildings, sometimes even changing international boundaries to accommodate local interests in expanding urban areas. Dubai and Singapore have even increased their own “sand space” by importing the aggregate to physically create more land to build on.

With increasing urbanization as a result of a growing middle class, continued demand for this finite resource is straining the supply. Alternatives to sand for construction purposes could include mud, crushed rock, and even recycled glass. As sand supplies run low, it will be necessary to find new sources of aggregates to meet development needs. Without intervention, shorelines along the world’s rivers and oceans will continue to disappear while the growing tragedy of the sand commons leaves behind cities of concrete buildings.