Why Sand Is Disappearing ; By John R. Gillis

beach-sand-mining
Illegal beach sand mining, near Tangier, Morocco. Photograph: © SAF — Coastal Care.

By © John R. Gillis, Professor Emeritus of History, Rutgers University

Originally published in The New York Times, November 4th, 2014. All rights reserved.

To those of us who visit beaches only in summer, they seem as permanent a part of our natural heritage as the Rocky Mountains and the Great Lakes. But shore dwellers know differently. Beaches are the most transitory of landscapes, and sand beaches the most vulnerable of all. During big storms, especially in winter, they can simply vanish, only to magically reappear in time for the summer season.

It could once be said that “a beach is a place where sand stops to rest for a moment before resuming its journey to somewhere else,” as the naturalist D. W. Bennett wrote in the book “Living With the New Jersey Shore.” Sand moved along the shore and from beach to sea bottom and back again, forming shorelines and barrier islands that until recently were able to repair themselves on a regular basis, producing the illusion of permanence.

Today, however, 75 to 90 percent of the world’s natural sand beaches are disappearing, due partly to rising sea levels and increased storm action, but also to massive erosion caused by the human development of shores. Many low-lying barrier islands are already submerged.

“75 to 90 percent of the world’s natural sand beaches are disappearing, due partly to rising sea levels and increased storm action, but also to massive erosion caused by the human development of shore.”
— John R. Gillis

Yet the extent of this global crisis is obscured because so-called beach nourishment projects attempt to hold sand in place and repair the damage by the time summer people return, creating the illusion of an eternal shore.

Before next summer, endless lines of dump trucks will have filled in bare spots and restored dunes. Virginia Beach alone has been restored more than 50 times. In recent decades, East Coast barrier islands have used 23 million loads of sand, much of it mined inland and the rest dredged from coastal waters — a practice that disturbs the sea bottom, creating turbidity that kills coral beds and damages spawning grounds, which hurts inshore fisheries.

The sand and gravel business is now growing faster than the economy as a whole. In the United States, the market for mined sand has become a billion-dollar annual business, growing at 10 percent a year since 2008. Interior mining operations use huge machines working in open pits to dig down under the earth’s surface to get sand left behind by ancient glaciers. But as demand has risen — and the damming of rivers has held back the flow of sand from mountainous interiors — natural sources of sand have been shrinking.

One might think that desert sand would be a ready substitute, but its grains are finer and smoother; they don’t adhere to rougher sand grains, and tend to blow away. As a result, the desert state of Dubai brings sand for its beaches all the way from Australia.

And now there is a global beach-quality sand shortage, caused by the industries that have come to rely on it. Sand is vital to the manufacturing of abrasives, glass, plastics, microchips and even toothpaste, and, most recently, to the process of hydraulic fracturing. The quality of silicate sand found in the northern Midwest has produced what is being called a “sand rush” there, more than doubling regional sand pit mining since 2009.

But the greatest industrial consumer of all is the concrete industry. Sand from Port Washington on Long Island — 140 million cubic yards of it — built the tunnels and sidewalks of Manhattan from the 1880s onward. Concrete still takes 80 percent of all that mining can deliver. Apart from water and air, sand is the natural element most in demand around the world, a situation that puts the preservation of beaches and their flora and fauna in great danger. Today, a branch of Cemex, one of the world’s largest cement suppliers, is still busy on the shores of Monterey Bay in California, where its operations endanger several protected species.

The huge sand mining operations emerging worldwide, many of them illegal, are happening out of sight and out of mind, as far as the developed world is concerned. But in India, where the government has stepped in to limit sand mining along its shores, illegal mining operations by what is now referred to as the “sand mafia” defy these regulations. In Sierra Leone, poor villagers are encouraged to sell off their sand to illegal operations, ruining their own shores for fishing. Some Indonesian sand islands have been devastated by sand mining.

“…environmental considerations are to become top priority. Only this will ensure that the story of the earth will still have subsequent chapters told in grains of sand.”
— John R. Gillis

It is time for us to understand where sand comes from and where it is going. Sand was once locked up in mountains and it took eons of erosion before it was released into rivers and made its way to the sea. As Rachel Carson wrote in 1958, “in every curving beach, in every grain of sand, there is a story of the earth.” Now those grains are sequestered yet again — often in the very concrete sea walls that contribute to beach erosion.

We need to stop taking sand for granted and think of it as an endangered natural resource. Glass and concrete can be recycled back into sand, but there will never be enough to meet the demand of every resort. So we need better conservation plans for shore and coastal areas. Beach replenishment — the mining and trucking and dredging of sand to meet tourist expectations — must be evaluated on a case-by-case basis, with environmental considerations taking top priority. Only this will ensure that the story of the earth will still have subsequent chapters told in grains of sand.

John R. Gillis is a professor emeritus of history at Rutgers University and the author of “The Human Shore: Seacoasts in History.”

Tags: ,

Sand Mining

You can make a difference and help save our beaches

Learn simple things that you can do to help protect beaches starting with simply educating others about the beach thereby helping us celebrate the beauty of the world’s beaches.


Join our campaign!

Sign the petition to end global sand mining.


  • Sand Mining Resources

  • More / Sand Mining

    More exploration approved at Icy Cape, Alaska

    November 18th, 2017

    A long stretch of beach at Icy Cape near Yakutat holds the possibility of massive mineral deposit that could produce millions in mining revenue for the Alaska Mental Health Land Trust.

    Read More

    Hong Kong’s Government Is Spending Billions Taking Land from the Sea

    November 14th, 2017

    Through expensive, time intensive, and complicated land reclamation projects, Hong Kong is continually extending out and into the water, where there wasn’t land before.

    Read More

    Line drawn on sand sales: EBay removes listings for sand purportedly from Hawaii beaches

    November 6th, 2017

    EBay has removed numerous listings advertising the sale of sand purported to be from Hawaii beaches, including iconic Papakolea Beach — also known as Green Sands Beach — after the Tribune-Herald inquired about the sand sales.

    Read More

    The world is running out of sand

    November 3rd, 2017

    After a trip to the beach, you’re likely to return with sand in your hair, between your toes, underneath your fingernails. It might be difficult to believe that the world is running out of the stuff, but it is.

    Read More

    South Florida, Out of Beach, Wants to Buy Sand from the Bahamas

    November 2nd, 2017

    Miami-Dade County lost 170,000 cubic yards of sand during Hurricane Irma. It’s the latest blow to South Florida beaches in perennial decline. Nearly half the state’s coast—411 miles’ worth of beach—is considered “critically eroded.”

    Read More

    New Federal Study: Dredging is harming more endangered fish

    November 2nd, 2017

    A study from the National Marine Fisheries Service says a few more endangered sturgeon and sea turtles have been killed as a result of the dredging in the Savannah River.

    Read More

    Replacing Miami’s beach sands costs millions. Here’s how Congress intends to make it cheaper

    October 24th, 2017

    Miami is out of sand. Last year, Miami-Dade County depleted its offshore sand reserves, meaning miles of beaches that shrink from erosion must be replenished with sand from outside South Florida.

    Read More

    Sand mining ravages African beaches

    October 21st, 2017

    Sand is a natural resource that is more and more exploited. Worldwide, beaches are mined for sand. As many other countries in the world, African States have legislated to better protect their coastal environment, but this did not put an end to illegal beach sand mining and its detrimental effects on the ecosystems.

    Read More

    Archive / Sand Mining