Earth Is Running Out of Sand, Apparently

By Ryan F. Mandelbaum on at

Summer is coming to an end, and you may be thinking fondly back to times spent lounging on a beach, soft white sand flowing between your fingers and toes as you napped under the Sun. Well, forget relaxing and start worrying, baby!

Researchers writing in the journal Science this week are warning us about yet another ecological issue caused by us resource-hogging humans: sand extraction. It’s hard to limit people’s sand use. As human demand for and use of natural resources has grown, sand and gravel have become the “most extracted group of materials worldwide.”

“As a result, sand scarcity is an emerging issue with major socio-political, economic, and environmental implications,” the authors write in the study, published yesterday.

According to a separate paper published late last year. “Globally, sand and gravel comprise 68–85 per cent of the 47–59 billion tons of material mined annually, and this percentage is increasing rapidly,” in applications like glass production, electronics production, and fracking. That article calls out the fact that sand mining can have all sorts of negative effects, contributing to species loss, conflicts between people, and degradation of habitats (beach erosion, for example).

How bad is the problem? The scientists behind the new study say that sand mining destabilising the shoreline could have made the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami’s effects worse in Sri Lanka. Sand mining is also responsible for damaging the water supply in the Mekong Delta, and it’s behind a crime ring that makes £12 million a month in revenue—the sand mafia. Seriously.

UN report from 2014 estimates that humans extract over 40 billion tons of gravel and sand a year—traditionally, from quarries and rivers, but now often from coastlines, as well. “This is twice the yearly amount of sediment carried by all of the rivers of the world,” that report says, and “their use greatly exceeds natural renewal rates.”

The Science article mentions a few times that this is an understudied issue. “Sand is a scarce resource in many parts of the world, but it is unclear if, globally, sand demand exceeds supply.” The researchers feel countries actually need to move on to calculating the Earth’s sand budget, using sand more efficiently, and recycling it.

I thought this was very funny when I first heard about it, but it turns out a lot of agencies are becoming increasingly worried about the world’s sand supply, and the UN report says that the issue is a much bigger deal than the public’s awareness might suggest. So, yeah. Sorry. [Science]