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In the eye of the sandstorm

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I am an unapologetic sand snob. A daughter of New Jersey, I grew up spoiled by broad, smooth beaches spilling gracefully into the Atlantic. Since I picked up beach volleyball two years ago, sand conditions have become even more important. Particle size determines everything from the height of my (already trivial) vertical leap to the length of my post-game shower as I try futilely to sluice away every last grain.

But even on the days that I don’t encounter sand at the beach or on the court, it surrounds me. For most of humanity – indeed, for all of us living in developed countries – sand plays an invisible but critical role in our daily lives. And as our numbers swell and our economies grow, our demand for sand is causing lasting environmental damage.

Every year, humans scoop approximately 40 billion tons of sand and gravel out of the earth. We use more sand than any other resource (like oil, or even food) except for water and air.

Sand goes into our construction projects: It’s a key ingredient in cement, and the world’s booming cities are gobbling up sand to build skyscrapers, roadways and other infrastructure. We also use sand for land reclamation, from shoring up our coastlines to creating controversial islands atop coral reefs in disputed waters.

The United States is the biggest miner and consumer of industrial sand in the world. Here, a silica sand industry (worth $1 billion in Wisconsin alone) has sprung up alongside rising demand for fossil fuels. That’s because we use silica sand in hydraulic fracturing (“fracking”) as a way of stabilizing fractured rock post-injection while oil and gas are extracted.

These uses are not exactly environmentally friendly. Fracking poisons drinking water supplies, destabilizes local geology and deepens our addiction to fossil fuels. And our many construction projects, however picturesque, permanently overwrite the native ecosystems once occupying that space. For example, China’s islands are constructed by dumping sand atop irreplaceable coral reefs.

Furthermore, all this sand has to come from somewhere. For the most part, we get our sand from pit mines, beaches and sand dunes, riverbeds and the shallow near-shore seafloor. (Desert sand, because of its chemical and physical properties, isn’t of much use to us.)

This sand mining comes at great human and environmental cost. In some parts of the world, the growing value of sand has created a black market of illegal mines and shady middlemen. Those who object are met with threats – or death. Meanwhile, participating laborers face harsh conditions and minimal pay.

Even when sand mining is done legally, it has severe environmental consequences. Coastal dunes and beaches are dynamic systems whose stability depends upon both intact vegetation and an abundance of sand to buffer against storms, wave action and other physical forces. Prying back plant life and carting away that sand destroys this balance.

In Australia, sand extraction from dunes on the Kurnell Peninsula has created wastewater lakes tens of feet deep and weakened the structure of the entire peninsula, which protects Botany Bay from storm surges. In Sierra Leone, beach mining has led to massive erosion, with some parts of the coastline receding twenty feet in a single year; coastal residents now face the double-loss of their homes and their tourism industry. Earlier this month, Myanmar residents petitioned their president to stop beach sand mining in an attempt to forestall the same fate.

Inland sand mining is also problematic. Dredging sand from rivers can destabilize and pollute their channels. Runoff from pit mines can contaminate local waterways. Silica sand mining, in particular, also generates airborne silica dust that can cause lung irritation and, eventually, life-threatening silicosis.

Yet in the United States, we’re continuing to scale our sand mining with demand. Silica sand mining alone could expand to twelve more states as the fracking boom continues. Globally, industrializing nations eager to highlight their new wealth are engaging in building booms that rely heavily on imported sand.

To combat this global environmental issue, we must begin by acknowledging its presence and severity. That means seeing construction sites not just as sources of new buildings, but also as sinks of natural resources – and figuring out where those resources are coming from.

Next, we need to simultaneously develop new technologies and better social mores. We must figure out how to do more with less, through efficient use of any newly extracted natural resources and clever recycling of materials we already have on hand. And this reducing, recycling approach has to become second nature. We need to develop an environmental consciousness that admires sustainability, not consumption, and rewards conservation, not excess.

In so doing, we’ll become better caretakers, not just of our sand supply, but also of our planet. Only then can we hope to secure humanity’s survival on Earth.

Contact Holly Moeller at hollyvm ‘at’ alumni.stanford.edu. 

Holly is a Ph.D. student in Ecology and Evolution, with interests that range from marine microbes to trees and mushrooms to the future of human life on this swiftly tilting planet. She's been writing "Seeing Green" since 2007, and still hasn't run out of environmental issues to cover, so to stay sane she goes for long runs, communes with redwood trees and does yoga (badly).