We Are Running Out of Sand
One of my favorite TV series of all time is the original Cosmos, hosted by Carl Sagan. In it, Sagan says, “The total number of stars in the Universe is larger than all the grains of sand on all the beaches of the planet Earth.” In fact, there are probably ten times as many stars as grains of sand on Earth. And that’s a low estimate. It really drives home how vast our universe is because there are definitely a lot of sand grains on Earth.
Everybody knows this. If you have ever been to the beach or merely played in a sandbox, you know intuitively that there must be countless grains of sand in the world.
So the idea of running out of sand sounds pretty ridiculous. Sand is just tiny rocks, right? How could we run out of that? The Earth is basically one giant rock.
But the fact is we are running out of sand.
And if you find that hard to accept, don’t worry — we’ve come to grips with this kind of thing before. We can do it again.
Sand is the most mined material in the world — surpassing oil and coal by far. And our demand for it is only rising. It’s a huge international commodity. Sand mining in the US is a $70 billion global industry. And the going price of sand has skyrocketed in recent years.
Some places in the world are even seeing sand shortages. Vietnam has depleted its sand resources so much, it could run out by 2020. These sand shortages have led to price gouging and black markets. China monopolized its sand mining industry in order to quell violence associated with competition for the increasingly rare resource. Organized crime runs the illegal sand trade in India, Italy and places in Africa.
So all of this might seem kind of absurd. Black markets for sand operated by sand mafias. People fighting over what is essentially dirt. But when you realize just how much we use sand, I think all of this starts to make a little more sense.
Sand is in our landscaping and beaches. We use sand for agriculture and it’s a crucial component in hydraulic fracking. It’s in our electronic devices. It’s in our aquariums. It’s even in toothpaste.
But most important of all, sand is the basic element of all construction.
Concrete is one of the most heavily used human-made materials in the world. And sand is one of its main ingredients. Bricks also need sand. So if you want to build a building or a road or a bridge or pretty much any kind of modern structure, you need a lot of sand. Our houses, our cities, our entire civilization is composed of almost entirely sand. The only other resource on the planet we use more than sand is water. And we need that to survive.
Even if you build a building without concrete or bricks, it’s probably gonna have windows. The glass in those windows is made almost entirely of sand. Anything made of glass. We produce enough flat glass every year to cover the state of Delaware.
We can’t just use any sand.
Desert sands are often too fine for construction purposes so most of the sand we use comes from riverbeds or oceans. So cities like Dubai, built in the middle of a desert, surrounded by miles and miles of sand, end up importing their construction sand from places like Australia or Canada, halfway around the world.
So it’s not that sand isn’t abundant — it is. We just use a whole lot of it. And we need more of it every passing year.
The extraction of sand has its own negative consequences. It alters coastlines and rivers and leads to erosion. After all, sand mining is basically just digging up the landscape. Sources of freshwater can become contaminated or rendered unusable to the local wildlife and communities that depend upon it. It can wreak havoc on local ecosystems. Coral beds are killed by ocean dredging. Sand mining along the Chambal River in India has contributed to the near extinction of a species of crocodile called the gharial.
The depletion of our sand resources will only be hastened in the future as cities grow and sea levels rise.
It’s easy to dismiss this as environmentalist alarmism. Sand is such an every day feature of our lives. It seems inconceivable that we would ever run out of it. But we have to remember this is how we used to think of all resources.
Forests and logging, whales and whale oil. We didn’t think we’d be able to run out of petroleum or coal. These seemed to be infinite in supply. There would always be a new reservoir to be tapped, a fresh seam to be uncovered. Running out of them seemed just as inconceivable as running out of sand does today.
But we know better now.
The way we think about and use sand might be one the last vestiges of that outmoded mindset — where everything is endless and there for the taking, without regard to the consequences of our actions or the sustainability of our practices.
Just like whales, fossil fuels, and forests, we will have to start thinking of sand as a precious commodity not only worthy of conservation but in dire need of our protection.
That means we need to appreciate it like Carl Sagan appreciated the stars in the sky.
If there are ten times as many of them in the universe as grains of sand, that means one grain of sand is worth at least ten stars. There’s a galaxy’s worth of stars in about one ton of sand. That amount of sand will cover about one hundred square feet or an area ten feet by ten feet.
Here’s our galaxy.
We mine over four hundred galaxies every second. We will go through about fifteen billion of these galaxies by the end of the year. The observable universe contains somewhere between one hundred to two hundred billion galaxies, each with billions and billions of stars. At this rate, we will run out of a universe’s worth of stars some time in the next two decades.
So if you’re ever thinking about wishing upon a star, make it upon a grain of sand instead — it’s worth a lot more.
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