Tuesday, April 07, 2015

Thinking About Sand

There are a lot of things in this world that we're running short of - clean water, various minerals, arable land, and common sense among them. But one thing it never occurred to me would be in short supply is - of all things - sand. Yesterday I ran across this extremely interesting (if a bit long) March 26th article by Vince Beiser from Wired Magazine: The Deadly Global War for Sand.

Now, sand isn't something I've thought very much about, other than to curse it while I sweep away piles of it from our streets and sidewalks after the recent miserable winter, but it turns out that common, ordinary sand is one of the most important commodities in the world. We need sand to make glass, cement, silicon chips, and all the other things that are built with them. Our civilization is, quite literally, built on sand. According to the article,

"Apart from water and air, humble sand is the natural resource most consumed by human beings. People use more than 40 billion tons of sand and gravel every year. There’s so much demand that riverbeds and beaches around the world are being stripped bare ... And the amount of sand being mined is increasing exponentially."

But how could there be a shortage of sand?, you ask, when there are vast tracts of sand in the world's deserts, and the Middle East has to be good for something besides oil and mindless violence. But as the article points out and I never realized,

"Desert sand generally doesn’t work for construction; shaped by wind rather than water, desert grains are too round to bind together well."

I think this is a fascinating article. It describes vast criminal networks devoted to mining, transporting, and selling common sand, a resource that may seem limitless but which is, in fact, in increasingly short supply. As the world's beaches and riverbeds are scraped free of sand, huge industries have sprung up to vacuum it up from the ocean floor. Uncontrolled sand mining causes beach erosion and pollutes the air and water.

It's political, too. China is dredging millions of tons of sand to build or enlarge islands that will reinforce its claims to vast sections of the South China Sea. Dubai's enormous land-reclamation projects like Palm Island (shown below) and constant building of huge skyscrapers have exhausted all the nearby sources of sand, leading to a worldwide trade - both legal and illegal - in plain old sand. The article points out that "Exporters in Australia are literally selling sand to Arabs."

Sadly, if you and I ever think about sand, it's in the context of sandbags to hold back flood waters and material to fill children's sandboxes. It's the beautiful white stuff we get in unfortunate orifices at the beach, or the abrasive substance glued to heavy paper to help with woodworking. And it appears in our songs as a symbol of impermanence, as in the song "Yesterday When I Was Young," written by Herbert Kretzmer and Charles Aznavour and sung memorably by Roy Clark:

"The thousand dreams I dreamed,
The splendid things I planned,
I always built to last on weak and shifting sand"

And yet, as we see, we depend on sand for the very permanence that we deny in song.

Sand. Don't build home without it.

Have a good day. More thoughts tomorrow.



eViL pOp TaRt said...

That was an interesting set of facts about sand, something to remember when I clean up after a trip to the beach. I had no idea that the shape of sand is important, and that desert sand is too round.

Grand Crapaud said...

I'll look at the cat box with more respect!

Banana Oil said...


John Hill said...

And we've been sweeping it up and throwing it out -- just pissing our money away!

Mike said...

Sand fight! Sand fight! Where? St. Louis County. There is a sand and gravel company that has almost depleted an area on the Meramec River near my house. They want to move their operation further up stream. Unfortunately the area they want to move into has become more populated than when their original operation was started years and years ago.

Linda Kay said...

Mike has an interesting story as well about sand and gravel. We have lots of rocks in Texas, so that's what people build with, and the sand might be used some in road construction, etc. Very interesting post, Bilbo!

allenwoodhaven said...

I never knew most of this. Very interesting! The Middle East should develop a way to put edges on their sand. Maybe tiny chisels?!