Winter has come to an end, and you may be eagerly anticipating spending time lounging on a beach, soft white sand flowing between your fingers and toes as you nap under the Sun. Well, forget relaxing and start worrying, baby!
Image: Aurora Torres, German Center for Integrative Biodiversity Research
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.
The New York Times sounded the alarm about sand scarcity way back in 2007, but it's become an increasingly pressing concern as of late, according to a paper published late last year. "Globally, sand and gravel comprise 68-85% of the 47-59 billion tons of material mined annually, and this percentage is increasing rapidly," in applications such as 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 $US17 million ($21 million) a month in revenue — the sand mafia. Seriously.
A UN report from 2014 estimates that humans extract over 40 billion tonnes 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.