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May 17, 2021

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The world is running out of sand: Understanding one of Earth’s most valuable natural resources

Sand

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Sand is everything around us. It allows us to see. To build. To communicate. Sand is in everything from our microchips to our skyscrapers. From the moment humankind built its first mud structure, we've been reliant on sand to hold together and advance our civilization.

Although it seems infinite, there's only so much accessible and usable sand on the planet — and we're using it at such an unregulated clip that recent reports warn there will be severe lasting environmental and humanitarian impact without thoughtful management. Take a closer look at one of the world's most precious resources.

What is sand?

In his book The World in a Grain, journalist Vince Beiser calls sand "the most important solid substance on Earth." It's made of loose grains of any hard material between 2 and 0.0625 millimeters, a tad larger than the width of a human hair. Anything smaller is considered silt, anything larger, gravel.

• Nearly 70% of all sand grains on Earth are made of quartz, a form of silicon dioxide also known as silica. (It's made of the two most abundant elements in the Earth's crust, silicone and dioxide.)

• It's physically or chemically eroded—from crushing glaciers, wind, water, decomposition and more.

Shortage concerns

According to the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies, sand mining is the world's largest mining endeavor, responsible for 85% of all mineral extraction. Not surprisingly, it has a visible effect on the environment and beyond.

Effect of sand mining

1. Drastically alters river flow, erodes riverbanks, dries up tributaries, lowers water tables and drains wetlands and fisheries

2. Threatens endangered species of fish, dolphins, crustaceans, plants, crocodiles and more, as operations destroy or erode critical sand banks

3. Destroys sea grasses, creates plumes of sediment that can drift for miles and triggers coastal erosion

4. Erases land—since 2005, at least two dozen Indonesian islands have disappeared, their sand ending up in artificial landscapes in Singapore

5. Threatens human life, via collapsing river banks, abandoned pits, sand avalanches and violence

6. Makes communities more vulnerable to floods, storm surges and tsunami damage

Mining for solutions

Given the building rates of nations around the world, using sand cannot be avoided, but it can be regulated. A 2019 United Nations Environment Program report on the sustainability of sand suggested the following methods for curbing sand mining:

1. Avoiding unnecessary natural sand consumption in construction (over-building and over-designing)

2. Using alternative materials to replace natural sand in construction (recycled ash from burned solid waste, for example)

3. Reducing sand extraction effects with existing standards and best practices

Sand wars

Not surprisingly, where there's money to be made, corruption will follow. Sand is in such high demand that many operations around the world are actually controlled by the "sand mafia." Beiser notes that violent organizations have sprung up in Kenya, Indonesia, Gambia, Jamaica, Nigeria and other nations where people are murdered for control of the sand market. In India, where sand-related violence is most prevalent, the black market trade is worth an estimated $2.3 billion. Hundreds have been killed, including police officers, government officials and ordinary citizens.

Types of sand

According to Beiser, humans use about 50 billion tons of sand each year, enough to cover the entire state of California. There are many different types of sand, each distinguished by their size, shape, origin, strength, weaknesses and so on. Beiser breaks them down into general categories:

Construction sand

• Description: Hard, angular grains

• Prevalence: Abundant, easily found

• Location: From riverbeds, beaches, quarries

• Material: Mainly quartz with other substances, depending where it was mined

• Uses: Found in building materials throughout the world, mixed with gravel (this blend is called "aggregate" in the construction industry). It's also used to make concrete (with gravel), as well as mortar, plaster, asphalt and roofing components

Marine sand

• Description: Similar to construction sand

• Uses: Great for land-building (think Dubai's man-made islands). Can also be used for concrete, but the salt must be rinsed off it first to avoid corroding any metals

Silica sands (aka industrial sands)

• Material: 95% pure silica

• Uses: Glass making, molds for metal foundries, adding luster to paint, filtering water; also used in the hydraulic fracturing industry

High-purity quartz

• Description: The "elite" sand

• Uses: Used to make equipment for manufacturing computer chips, as well as for dune sands on exclusive golf courses, volleyball courts and horse racing tracks

Desert sand

Because of wind erosion, its grains are too round for construction use (lack of angles means the grains won't lock together and instead just roll around each other like marbles)

Visit Sand Mountain, Nevada

Located 90 miles east of Reno, Sand Mountain is a 2-mile-long sand dune left over from the ancient glacial Lake Lahontan. Overseen by the Bureau of Land Management, the six-story mountain of sand was beachfront property up until 9,000 years ago, when the lake dried up.

Today, it's a favorite spot for ATV-riding, mountain biking, hiking and camping. It's also home to the critically imperiled Sand Mountain blue butterfly, along with the Sand Springs Pony Express Station.

Sand Mountain is also one of the world's few examples of "singing sand." The dune's grains are shaped in such a way that visitors can hear the sand "sing" as the grains rub against each other.

Sand Mountain Recreation Area

BLM Carson City District Ranger Office

5665 Morgan Mill Road

Carson City, NV 89701

This story appeared in Las Vegas Weekly.