Preface. No wonder we’re reaching peak sand. We use more of this natural resource than of any other except water. Civilization consumes nearly 50 billion tons of sand & gravel a year, enough to build a concrete wall 88 feet (27 m) high and 88 feet wide right around the equator.
Alice Friedemann www.energyskeptic.com author of “When Trucks Stop Running: Energy and the Future of Transportation”, 2015, Springer, Barriers to Making Algal Biofuels, and “Crunch! Whole Grain Artisan Chips and Crackers”. Podcasts: Collapse Chronicles, Derrick Jensen, Practical Prepping, KunstlerCast 253, KunstlerCast278, Peak Prosperity , XX2 report
* * *
Vince Beiser. 2018. The World in a Grain. The Story of Sand and How It Transformed Civilization. Riverhead Books.
Riverbeds and beaches around the world are being stripped bare of their precious grains. Farmlands and forests are being torn up. And people are being imprisoned, tortured, and murdered. All over sand.
In 1950, some 746 million people—less than one-third of the world’s population—lived in cities. Today, the number is almost 4 billion,
The overwhelming bulk of it goes to make concrete, by far the world’s most important building material. In a typical year, according to the United Nations Environment Programme, the world uses enough concrete to build a wall 88 feet high and 88 feet wide right around the equator.
There is such intense need for certain types of construction sand that places like Dubai, which sits on the edge of an enormous desert in the Arabian Peninsula, are importing sand from Australia.
Sand mining tears up wildlife habitat, fouls rivers, and destroys farmland.
Thieves in Jamaica made off with 1,300 feet of white sand from one of the island’s finest beaches in 2008. Smaller-scale beach-sand looting is ongoing in Morocco, Algeria, Russia, and many other places around the world.
The damage being done to beaches is only one facet, and not even the most dangerous one, of the damage being done by sand mining around the world. Sand miners have completely obliterated at least two dozen Indonesian islands since 2005. Hauled off boatload by boatload, the sediment forming those islands ended up mostly in Singapore, which needs titanic amounts of sand to continue its program of artificially adding territory by reclaiming land from the sea.
The city-state has created an extra 50 square miles in the past 40 years and is still adding more, making it by far the world’s largest sand importer. The demand has denuded beaches and riverbeds in neighboring countries to such an extent that Indonesia, Malaysia, Vietnam, and Cambodia have all restricted or completely banned exports of sand to Singapore.
Sand miners are increasingly turning to the seafloor, vacuuming up millions of tons with dredges the size of aircraft carriers. One-third of all aggregate used in construction in London and southern England comes from beneath the United Kingdom’s offshore waters. Japan relies on sea sand even more heavily, pulling up around 40 million cubic meters from the ocean floor each year. That’s enough to fill up the Houston Astrodome thirty-three times.
Hauling all those grains from the seafloor tears up the habitat of bottom-dwelling creatures and organisms. The churned-up sediment clouds the water, suffocating fish and blocking the sunlight that sustains underwater vegetation.
The dredging ships dump grains too small to be useful, creating further waterborne dust plumes that can affect aquatic life far from the original site.
Dredging of ocean sand has also damaged coral reefs in Florida and many other places, and threatens important mangrove forests, sea grass beds, and endangered species such as freshwater dolphins and the Royal Turtle. One round of dredging may not be significant, but the cumulative effect of several can be. Large-scale ocean sand mining is new enough that there hasn’t been a lot of research on it, meaning that no one knows for sure what the long-term environmental impacts will be. We’re sure to find out in the coming years, however, given how fast the practice is expanding.
What is sand?
The average grain of sand is a tad larger than the width of a human hair. Those grains can be made by glaciers grinding up stones, by oceans degrading seashells and corals (many Caribbean beaches are made of decomposed shells), even by volcanic lava chillingand shattering upon contact with air or water.
Nearly 70% of all sand grains on Earth are quartz. These are the ones that matter most to us.
Silicon and oxygen, are the most abundant elements in the Earth’s crust, so it’s no surprise that quartz is one of the most common minerals on Earth. It is found abundantly in the granite and other rocks that form the world’s mountains and other geologic features.
Most of the quartz grains we use were formed by erosion. Wind, rain, freeze-thaw cycles, microorganisms, and other forces eat away at mountains and other rock formations, breaking grains off their exposed surfaces. Rain then washes those grains downhill, sweeping them into rivers that carry countless tons of them far and wide. This waterborne sand accumulates in riverbeds, on riverbanks, and on the beaches where the rivers meet the sea. Over the centuries, rivers periodically overflow their banks and shift their courses, leaving behind huge deposits of sand
Quartz is tremendously hard, which is why quartz grains survive this long, bruising journey intact while other mineral grains disintegrate.
Over millions of years, sands are often buried under newer layers of sediment, uplifted into new mountains, then eroded and transported once again.
Quartz always comes mixed with bits of other materials: iron, feldspar, whatever other minerals prevail in the local geology. (Pure quartz is transparent,
A certain amount of those other substances need to be filtered out before the sand can be used to make concrete, glass, or other products.
Sand is deployed on its own to make other construction materials like mortar, plaster, and roofing components.
Marine sands—the naval wing of the army, found on the ocean floor—are of similar composition, making them useful for artificial land building, such as Dubai’s famous palm-tree-shaped man-made islands. These underwater grains can also be used for concrete, but that requires washing the salt off them—an expensive step most contractors would rather avoid.
Silica sands are purer—at least 95%. These are the sands you need to make glass. Silica sands are also used to help make molds for metal foundries, add luster to paint, and filter the water in swimming pools, among many other tasks. Some of the unique properties of industrial sands suit them for highly specific jobs. The silica sands of western Wisconsin, for instance, have a particular shape and structure that make them ideal for use in fracking for oil and gas.
Small amounts of extremely high-purity quartz, a tiny, elite group possessed of rare attributes that enable them to perform extraordinary feats. These particles are made into high-tech equipment essential for manufacturing computer chips. Some are also used to create the sparkling sand traps of exclusive golf courses or to line Persian Gulf horse-racing tracks
Underwater sands are easier to mine, since there’s no intervening earth, known as overburden, to scrape away. They also come largely cleansed of dust-sized particles. On land, sand is usually quarried from open pits. Sometimes that requires using explosives and crushing machines to break apart sandstone,
Raw sand needs to be washed and run through a series of screens to sort it by size.
In the United States, some 4,100 companies and government agencies harvest aggregate from about 6,300 locations in all fifty states.
The harm done by sand mining
Colossal amounts of more ordinary construction sand is dredged up from riverbeds or dug from nearby floodplains. In central California, floodplain sand mining has diverted river waters into dead-end detours and deep pits that have proven fatal traps for salmon.
Dredging sand from riverbeds, as from seabeds, can destroy habitat and muddy waters to a lethal degree for anything living in the water. Kenyan officials shut down all river sand mines in one western province in 2013 because of the environmental damage they were causing. In Sri Lanka,33 sand extraction has left some riverbeds so deeply lowered that seawater intrudes into them, damaging drinking water supplies.
India’s Supreme Court warned in 2011 that “the alarming rate of unrestricted sand mining” was disrupting riparian ecosystems all over the country, with fatal consequences for fish and other aquatic organisms and “disaster” for many bird species.
In Vietnam, researchers with the World Wildlife Federation believe sand mining on the Mekong River is a key reason the 15,000-square-mile Mekong Delta—home to 20 million people and source of half of all the country’s food and much of the rice that feeds the rest of Southeast Asia—is gradually disappearing. The ocean is overtaking the equivalent of one and a half football fields of this crucial region’s land every day. Already, thousands of acres of rice farms have been lost.
For centuries, the delta has been replenished by sediment carried down from the mountains of Central Asia by the Mekong River. But in recent years, in each of the several countries along its course, miners have begun pulling huge quantities of sand from the riverbed to use for the construction of Southeast Asia’s surging cities. Nearly 50 million tons of sand are being extracted annually. “The sediment flow has been halved,” says Marc Goichot, a researcher with the World Wildlife Fund’s Greater Mekong Programme. That means that while natural erosion of the delta continues, its natural replenishment does not. At this rate, nearly half the Mekong delta will be wiped out by the end of this century.
Sand extraction from rivers has also caused untold millions of dollars’ worth of damage to infrastructure around the world. The stirred-up sediment clogs up water supply equipment, and all the earth removed from riverbanks leaves the foundations of bridges exposed and unsupported. A 1998 study found that each ton of aggregate mined from the San Benito River on California’s central coast caused $11 million in infrastructure damage—costs that are borne by taxpayers. In many countries, sand miners have dug up so much ground that they have dangerously exposed the foundations of bridges and hillside buildings, putting them at risk of collapse.
Fisherfolk from Cambodia to Sierra Leone are losing their livelihoods as sand mining decimates the populations of fish and other aquatic creatures they rely on. In some places, mining has made riverbanks collapse, taking out agricultural land and causing floods that have displaced whole families. In Vietnam in 2017 alone, so much soil slid into heavily mined rivers, taking with it the crops and homes of hundreds of families, that the government shut down sand extraction completely in two provinces.
And in Houston, Texas, government officials say that sand mining in the nearby San Jacinto River—much of it illegal—seriously exacerbated flooding damage during 2017’s Hurricane Harvey. It seems that sand miners stripped away so much vegetation along the river banks that huge amounts of silt were left exposed, and were then washed into the river by Harvey’s rains. That silt then piled up in riparian bottlenecks and at the bottom of Lake Houston, the city’s principal source of drinking water, causing them to overflow into nearby neighborhoods.
River-bottom sand also plays an important role in local water supplies. It acts like a sponge, catching the water as it flows past and percolating it down into underground aquifers. But when that sand has been stripped away, instead of being drawn underground, the water just keeps on moving to the sea, leaving aquifers to shrink. As result, there are parts of Italy and southern India where river sand mining has drastically depleted local drinking water supplies. Elsewhere, the lack of water is killing crops.
In 2015, New York state authorities slapped a $700,000 fine on a Long Island contractor who had illegally gouged thousands of tons of sand from a 4.5-acre patch of land near the town of Holtsville and then refilled the pit with toxic waste.
In Morocco, fully half the sand used for construction is estimated to be mined illegally; whole stretches of beach in that country are disappearing.
India is a vast country of more than 1 billion people. It hides hundreds, most likely thousands, of illegal sand mining operations. Corruption and violence will stymie many of even the best-intentioned attempts to crack down on them. And it’s not just India.
There is large-scale illegal sand extraction going on in dozens of countries. One way or another, sand is mined in almost every country on Earth. India is only the most extreme manifestation of a slow-building crisis that affects the whole world.
Concrete is the skeleton of the modern world, the scaffold on which so much else is built. It gives us the power to dam enormous rivers, erect buildings of Olympian height, and travel to all but the remotest corners of the world with an ease that would astonish our ancestors. Measured by the number of lives it touches, concrete is easily the most important man-made material ever invented.
Cement is not the same thing as concrete. Cement is an ingredient of concrete. It’s the glue that binds the gravel and sand together. Cements (there are many forms) are typically made by crushing up clay, lime, and other minerals, firing them in a kiln at temperatures up to 2,700 degrees, then milling the result into a silky-fine gray powder. Mix that powder with water and you get a paste. The paste doesn’t simply dry, like mud; it “cures,” meaning the powder’s molecules bond together via a process called hydration, its chemical components gripping each other ever tighter, making the resulting substance extremely strong. Reinforced with a platoon of sand, that paste thickens into mortar, the stuff used to hold bricks together.
Concrete is made by adding “aggregate”—sand and gravel—to the mix of cement and water. Typical concrete is about 75% aggregate, 15% water, and 10% cement.
Roman engineers developed sophisticated techniques to improve on basic concrete. Concrete shrinks as it hardens, which can cause it to crack. Water seeping into the cracks expands when it freezes, widening those cracks and further weakening the concrete. Adding horsehair helped with shrinkage, the Romans found, and putting a bit of blood or animal fat in the mix helped the concrete withstand the effects of freezing water.
Today, there are hundreds of formulas for making cement tailored to specific weather conditions, project types, and other variables.
95% of the roughly 83 million tons of cement manufactured in America is Portland cement.
On its own, concrete is basically artificial stone. Reinforced with iron or steel, though, it becomes a building material unlike anything found in nature, one that combines the strengths of both metal and stone. That’s what makes it so useful for so many purposes.
By 1906 there were very few reinforced concrete buildings in California. That was largely thanks to bitter opposition from powerful building trade unions, especially on Ransome’s home turf of San Francisco. Bricklayers, stonemasons, and others, correctly seeing in concrete a mortal threat to their professions, denounced it as unproven and unsafe. Just a few months before the quake, a group of bricklayers and steelworkers in Los Angeles tried to convince the city council to forbid the construction of any more concrete buildings31 within municipal limits. The tradesmen also made a case against concrete on the grounds that it was plain ugly.
Concrete made possible the Panama Canal, begun in 1903, which reshaped an entire nation’s landscape and the world’s shipping routes. It was used to make bunkers for millions of troops in World War I
One million tons of it were deployed to anchor San Francisco’s Golden Gate Bridge.
Every mile of the US interstate highway is made with some 15,000 tons of concrete. Throw in the medians, overpasses, ramps, and road base, and all told, an estimated 1.5 billion tons of gravel and sand went into making the national highway system. That’s more than enough concrete to build a sidewalk reaching to the moon and back—twice.
Modern asphalt pavement is often more than 90% sand and gravel.
One advantage asphalt had over wood was that it didn’t soak up urine from the endless parade of horses that were the primary form of transport at the time. And unlike brick or stone, asphalt had no gaps between blocks for manure to get stuck in, a serious health hazard.
These days, asphalt producers like to boast that 93% of all 2.2 million miles of America’s paved roads are surfaced with their product. They don’t mention that it’s often just an overlay on top of concrete base.
Both asphalt and concrete are basically just gravel and sand stuck together. The difference is the binding agent. In concrete, it’s cement. In asphalt pavement, it’s bitumens.
The basic trade-off is that in general, asphalt is cheaper to lay down and to maintain, and provides a smoother, quieter ride. Concrete, on the other hand, lasts longer and doesn’t need as much repairing in the first place. The choice often comes down to how much money a given government agency has handy.
Both types of pavement began creeping over city streets in the late 1800s, but outside of urban areas at that time, there was almost nothing but dirt to travel on. Roads just weren’t that important. For most of American history, if you wanted to move lots of people or large quantities of goods any significant distance, you did it via water. Rivers, lakes, canals, and seacoasts carried trade and travelers between settlements. Then along came the railroads in the mid-1800s. Trains connected existing centers and made it easier for people to settle further inland.
Roads, such as they were, were for local travel and hauling small loads via horse, wagon, or foot.
By 1912, there were nearly a million cars on American roads—10 percent of them Model T’s. They jostled for space with the new trucks that farmers were investing in to haul their produce, and which businesses were turning to as an alternative to railroads. At the time, there were still 21 million horses hauling people and cargo, but it was clear automobiles were becoming ever more important.
One of the central difficulties in building those first highways was getting the armies of sand to where they were needed. Each mile of paved road required around 2,000 tons of sand and 3,000 tons of gravel. Hauling all that aggregate out to the rural areas where most of the new highways were being built was no small feat; after all, at the time there were hardly any trucks, and no existing roads on which to transport the aggregate from the mines to the new roadbeds. Builders had to rely on horses and wagons, or build special rail lines to bring trains to the roadbeds. Locomotives would haul in carloads of rock, sand, and cement to be mixed on-site.
Roads became a major industry unto themselves. Hundreds of thousands of men worked building them (including chain-ganged prisoners forced to break rocks for roads). More jobs were created in the gas stations, repair shops, restaurants, hotels, and motels that grew up alongside the new highways. Hundreds of other businesses grew fat supplying the raw materials to the road makers—cement, asphalt, gravel, and of course, sand.
11 million tons of sand and gravel were needed to build California’s Shasta Dam. Kaiser figured it would be simple, since he already owned a sizable aggregate mine near the dam site north of Redding; all he had to do was load it up on trains and pay for the transport. But the local railroad quoted a price Kaiser thought too high. So he came up with an audacious work-around. He built a conveyor belt nearly ten miles long, the longest the world had ever seen, to carry a thousand tons of sand and rock per hour up and down rugged hills and across several creeks to the dam site. Later, Kaiser parlayed his expertise with aggregate into a prize gig as one of the main contractors building the Hoover Dam.
The road network is far more resilient compared to rail lines. Trucks can drive around bomb craters, after all, but trains can’t get past damaged track. trucks carry 70% of all US freight, seven times more than trains.
In addition to all the grains embedded in the 11 inches of concrete on the roads’ surface, a further 21 inches of aggregates were needed for the underlying road base.
Consumption of sand and gravel in the US hit a record high of nearly 700 million tons in 1958, a figure almost twice the 1950 total. By then, according to a federal Bureau of Mines report, so much had already been used that “sources of aggregate were limited in some states” and “nearly depleted in other areas.” Entire new types of monster dump trucks, capable of carrying huge loads off-road, were designed to meet the need to move all that aggregate.
Figuring out exactly how to build those roads took some doing. The Bureau of Public Roads set up a testing center near Chicago where researchers experimented with different types and proportions of sand, gravel, cement, and other ingredients to figure out how much of a beating from heavily loaded trucks each paving mixture could stand up to and for how long. They built a series of looping test tracks composed of various asphalt and concrete mixes, and then set a company of soldiers to drive trucks over them—19 hours a day, every day for two years. The bureau used the data to set pavement design standards.
Whatever else you can say about suburbs, their low density and dependence on cars make them an especially sand-intensive form of settlement. Think of all the sand that goes into those wide roads and all those low-slung, spread-out houses, each with its own driveway. Every one of those houses contains hundreds of tons of sand and gravel, from its asphalt driveway to its concrete foundation to its stuccoed walls to the grains on its roof shingles.
The open spaces of suburbia also made possible an explosive proliferation of swimming pools, which require large amounts of sand in the form of concrete.
American sand and gravel production grew in step with the spread of suburbs.
It can be shaped and molded into almost any form, from twenty-ton slabs to strands thinner than a human hair, from delicate crystal to bulletproof shields. It makes fiber-optic cables and beer bottles, microscope lenses and fiberglass kayaks, the skins of skyscrapers and the teeny camera lenses on your cell phone.
Glass is the thing that lets us see everything. Without it, we’d have no photographs, films, or television, “no understanding of the world of bacteria and viruses, no antibiotics and no revolution in molecular biology from the discovery of DNA,
A more refined breed of grain is required than the common construction sand used for concrete. Glass sand belongs to a category called industrial, or silica, sand. The best silica sands also come relatively uniform in size. Grains that are too big won’t melt as easily, and ones that are too small will be blown away by air currents in the furnaces.
Construction sand grains retain their form when made into concrete; they are cemented together with countless legions of their fellow grains and their big brothers, gravel pieces, perpetually working together. The grains that become glass, however, are actually transmuted, losing their individual bodies as they are fused together to form a completely different substance.
Getting them to do that, however, is not easy. It takes temperatures topping 1,600 degrees Celsius to melt silica grains. But mixing sand with additives known as flux, such as soda (aka sodium carbonate), lowers that melting point dramatically. Throw in a little calcium, in the form of powdered limestone or seashell fragments, melt it all together, and when the mixture cools, you have basic glass.
Glassmaking developed into such a profitable art in Venice that in 1291 the city-state’s rulers ordered all of the city’s glassmakers to move to the island of Murano. There they were treated like aristocrats—but not allowed to leave, lest they take their coveted craft secrets to rival nations.
“The invention of spectacles increased the intellectual life of professional workers by fifteen years or more,” write Macfarlane and Martin. Eyeglasses likely abetted the surge of knowledge in Europe from the fourteenth century on. “Much of the later work of great writers such as Petrarch would not have been completed without spectacles. The active life of skilled craftsmen, often engaged in very detailed close work, was also almost doubled,” Macfarlane and Martin maintain. The ability to read into one’s old age became even more important once the printing press came into widespread use from the middle of the fifteenth century.
To manufacture glass profitably, glassmakers need easy access to high-quality sand, cheap energy to run the furnaces, and a transportation network to get the product to market.
It insulated the Alaskan oil pipeline,
In the single year following the introduction of the bottle-making machine, silica sand production in the United States leapt from 1.1 million tons to 4.4 million tons. Clawing all those grains from the earth wreaked considerable damage on the environment. Starting in 1890, sand miners completely dismantled the Hoosier Slide, a 200-foot-tall Indiana dune near Michigan City that was once a tourist attraction, hauling its grains away in wheelbarrows to sell to glassmakers
Lake Michigan shoreline dunes, some as high as 300 feet, were also mined out of existence until public outcry forced the state government to protect them in the 1970s and 1980s.
Elsewhere in Indiana, the Gary Evening Post complained in 1913 that “sand sucker” boats were “stealing the bottom” of Lake Michigan to sell to glassmakers. At the time, no permit or payment was required; anyone was free to dredge as much sand as they liked. (Indiana sand also provided fill for the site of the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair, and to reclaim the land on which Chicago’s famous Lincoln Park was built.)
Owens’s machine quickly and completely wiped out jobs for another class of workers: children. The unions suddenly became crusaders for eliminating child labor—partly because their low pay dragged down wages for everyone, at a time when workingmen’s livelihoods were already in jeopardy. But more important, kids simply were no longer needed in the factories. The dangerous, repetitive tasks that had been given to children were now better handled by machines. In 1880, nearly one-quarter of all glass industry workers were children; by 1919, fewer than 2 percent were.
The irony of all this was that Owens himself didn’t see much wrong with child labor. He always insisted his own early career was a fine one for any stouthearted lad. In a 1922 magazine interview, he expounded: “One of the greatest evils of modern life is the growing habit of regarding work as an affliction. When I was a youngster I wanted to work. . . . A great deal of the trouble to day is with the mothers. Too many boys are being brought up by sentimental women. The first fifteen or twenty years of their lives are spent in playing. . . . When they finally start to work, they are so useless and so helpless that it is positively pathetic. The young man who has begun to work when he was a boy has them handicapped. . . . The hard work I did as a boy never injured me.” He added: “I went through all the jobs the boys performed, and I enjoyed every bit of the experience.
Before 1900, beer and whiskey were distributed in kegs to taverns; if you wanted some to take home, you had to supply your own jug. Milk was stored in metal cans delivered by milk wagons; it was served in pitchers. There was no such thing as a baby bottle. Glass is a near-perfect material for packaging food and beverages. It is nonporous and impermeable, and almost nothing reacts with it chemically, which means a bottle will not interact with whatever is inside it. It won’t rust or leach BPAs or impart a plasticky taste; the liquid inside will retain its aroma and flavor for a very long time. So the sudden availability of cheap high-quality bottles was a colossal gift to makers of soft drinks, beer, medicines, and other bottled consumables.
Owens’s mass-manufactured bottles hit the market at the same time that automobiles were taking over the country and paved roads were spreading. Both developments made it easier than ever to distribute products like bottled drinks far and wide. Trucks loaded with products packaged in sand rolled smoothly from shop to shop on roads made of sand.
By 1916 they had a good enough model to launch a new company selling sheet glass. Its impact was as profound as the bottle machine, turning windows for houses and cars, as well as glass tableware, from luxury items into everyday basics.
Glass-skinned skyscrapers took over city skylines. Plate glass production worldwide mushroomed twenty-five-fold between 1980 and 2010.37 Today, more than 11 billion square yards of flat glass are consumed every year38—more than enough to glaze over the entire city of Houston six times.
Owens-Illinois employees in the 1930s developed a threadlike form of glass that is flexible, strong, lightweight, waterproof, and heat resistant, which they dubbed Fiberglas.
Others had spun glass into threads before, but the new process allowed for the creation of strands as thin as four microns around and thousands of feet long.
To make fiberglass, silica is melted down along with other substances—boron, calcium oxide, magnesia—to make it more workable and give it other properties desired for specific products, such as greater tensile strength. This molten glass is extruded through a metal sleeve set with tiny holes, and the streams are caught on high-speed winders that spin them into filaments. Once cooled and coated with chemical resin, these strands can be used in all kinds of ways.
Owens-Illinois employees in the 1930s developed a threadlike form of glass that is flexible, strong, lightweight, waterproof, and heat resistant, which they dubbed Fiberglas. (Yes, with one s. Later, other companies brought their own versions to market and the stuff became known generically as fiberglass.) Others had spun glass into threads before, but the new process allowed for the creation of strands as thin as four microns around and thousands of feet long. As is true of all glass products, it owes its existence to sand. To make fiberglass, silica is melted down along with other substances—boron, calcium oxide, magnesia—to make it more workable and give it other properties desired for specific products, such as greater tensile strength. This molten glass is extruded through a metal sleeve set with tiny holes, and the streams are caught on high-speed winders that spin them into filaments. Once cooled and coated with chemical resin, these strands can be used in all kinds of ways. Fiberglass pipe insulation to kayaks. Highly efficient insulation made with fiberglass also helped make possible the movement of millions of people into America’s South and Southwest, areas too unpleasantly hot in summer for most folks to consider without a reliable way to keep the heat out. Sand in the form of fiberglass made it easier for people to move to the sand-strewn deserts of Arizona and Nevada.
(Ceramics, incidentally, are also largely composed of sand; ground silica provides the skeleton to which the clay and other additives are attached.)
Glass has long since lost its premier position as the world’s beverage container material of choice; plastic bottles and metal cans now make up 80 percent of the market.
The industry’s center of gravity today is China, which is now both the world’s largest producer and consumer of glass, churning out and gobbling up more than half of all the world’s flat glass. It so thoroughly dominates glass manufacture today
Spruce Pine, it turns out, is the source of the purest natural quartz ever found on Earth. This ultra-elite corps of silicon dioxide particles plays a key role in manufacturing the silicon used to make computer chips. In fact, there’s an excellent chance the chip that makes your laptop or cell phone work was made using quartz from this obscure Appalachian backwater. “It’s a billion-dollar industry here,” said Glover with a hooting laugh. “Can’t tell by driving through here. You’d never know it.
Mica used to be prized for wood- and coal-burning stove windows and for electrical insulation in vacuum tube electronics. It’s now used mostly as a specialty additive in cosmetics and things like caulks, sealants, and drywall joint compound.
Step one is to take high-purity silica sand, the kind used for glass. (Lump quartz is also sometimes used.) That quartz is then blasted in a powerful electric furnace, creating a chemical reaction that separates out much of the oxygen. That leaves you with what is called silicon metal, which is about 99 percent pure silicon. But that’s not nearly good enough for high-tech uses. Silicon for solar panels has to be 99.999999 percent pure—six 9s after the decimal. Computer chips are even more demanding. Their silicon needs to be 99.99999999999 percent pure—eleven 9s.
The next step is to melt down the polysilicon. But you can’t just throw this exquisitely refined material in a cook pot. If the molten silicon comes into contact with even the tiniest amount of the wrong substance, it causes a ruinous chemical reaction. You need crucibles made from the one substance that has both the strength to withstand the heat required to melt polysilicon, and a molecular composition that won’t infect it. That substance is pure quartz. This is where Spruce Pine quartz comes in. It’s the world’s primary source of the raw material needed to make the fused-quartz crucibles in which computer-chip-grade polysilicon is melted. A fire in 2008 at one of the main quartz facilities in Spruce Pine for a time all but shut off the supply of high-purity quartz to the world market, sending shivers through the industry.
A 2017 study by the US Geological Survey warned that unless something is done, as much as two-thirds of Southern California’s beaches may be completely eroded by 2100.2 To understand why, you
Massive coastal development—marinas, jetties, ports—blocks the flow of ocean-borne sand.
River dams also cut off the flow of sand that used to feed beaches.
Southern California’s beaches have lost as much as four-fifths of the sediment that rivers used to bring them, thanks to dams.
Louisiana loses an estimated sixteen square miles of wetlands every year—a crucial natural defense against hurricanes—because levees and canals on the Mississippi have reduced the flow of sediment that used to replenish them.6 Egypt’s Aswan Dam has done a similar number on the shore of the Nile Delta. China’s colossal Three Gorges Dam project is expected to have an even greater impact.
Sand mining makes the problem worse. Dams combined with upriver sand mining are decimating the supply of replenishing sediment to Vietnam’s Mekong Delta, home to 20 million people and source of half that country’s food supply.
Illegal beach sand mining has been reported all over the world. In Morocco and Algeria, illegal miners have stripped entire beaches for construction sand, leaving behind rocky moonscapes. Thieves in Hungary made off with hundreds of tons of sand from an artificial river beach in 2007. Five miles of beach was stripped down to its clay foundation in Russian-occupied Crimea in 2016. Smugglers in Malaysia, Indonesia, and Cambodia pile beach sand onto small barges in the night and sell them in Singapore.8 Beaches have been torn up in India and elsewhere by
Government officials in Puerto Rico have had to restrict beach sand mining because so many grains were being taken to build tourist hotels that the very beaches those tourists came for were disappearing.
Add rising seas to shrinking beaches and you have a serious problem worldwide.
Beach nourishment, also known as beach replenishment, has become a major industry. More than $7 billion has been spent in the United States in recent decades on artificially rebuilding hundreds of miles of beach nationwide. Almost all of the costs are covered by taxpayers; much of it is overseen by the federal US Army Corps of Engineers. Florida accounted for about a quarter of the total,
Eastman Aggregate would dump a million tons of new sand on Broward’s beaches over the course of several months. The grains are mined from an inland quarry a couple of hours drive away. Trucks haul that sand down the highway, squeeze their way in between the villas and hotels, and dump it on the shore. Excavators load the freshly delivered sand into hulking yellow dump trucks, which ferry it to the edge of the renourishment zone. Small bulldozers then push the grains into place, extending an evenly proportioned beach out into the surf.
Hauling and placing sand with trucks is both considerably slower and far more expensive than the more common method, which is to dredge sand from the sea bottom and blast it onto the shore through floating pipes. The problem is that over the last four decades since beach nourishment began in earnest, Broward County has used up all the sea sand it is legally and technically able to lay its hands on. Nearly 12 million cubic yards13 of underwater grains have been stripped off the ocean bottom and thrown onto Broward’s shores. There are still some pockets of sand on the seabed, but dredging them is forbidden because it could damage the coral reefs they sit next to.
The same goes for Miami-Dade County to the south.
There is lots of sand left off the coasts of three other Florida counties farther north. They haven’t worked their beaches quite as hard as the tourist meccas to the south, and the continental shelf up there extends further out before dropping into the deep ocean, giving them a larger area to dredge from. Miami-Dade has asked for help, but the northern counties have so far refused to share. They don’t want to find themselves in Miami’s position thirty years from now.
Olympic beach volleyball players. To make sure their bare feet come into contact only with grains of just the right size and shape, sand was brought in from Hainan Island for the 2008 Beijing Games, and from a quarry in Belgium for the 2004 Athens Games.
This particular beach is only expected to last about six years before it needs more upkeep.
In Broward County, they make no bones about it. “Beaches are a form of infrastructure,” said Sharp. “You pave your potholes, we pave our beaches with sand.
For most of human history, beaches weren’t places to relax, but to work. The sandy shores were where fishermen launched their boats and cleaned their catch, where small traders unloaded their cargo. Coastal people built their homes a safe distance from the unpredictable weather and waves of the shoreline, often facing away from the sea for added protection.16 “When Europeans and Americans first settled the coasts, they largely ignored, indeed avoided, what are today’s most coveted stretches of shore,” writes historian John R. Gillis in The Human Shore, an account of our changing relationship with our coasts. “The beach was used for landing but not for settlement. Its featureless barrenness was not only inhospitable but repulsive.
“1820s-era England is responsible for a turning point in the history of seaside resorts, as this was when the first major bathing establishments were constructed for the specific purpose of bathing, relaxation, and play,”18 writes University of Florida scholar Tatyana Ressetar in her master’s thesis
The popularity of beaches grew through the late 1800s among the burgeoning middle class, with their newfound leisure time, and as railroads made the shores accessible to lower-class city dwellers who previously had no way to reach them.
The rich began building private seaside mansions, and the middle class copied them on a smaller scale, until by the 1930s there were seaside towns all over Europe and North America. The rise of the automobile and post–World War II prosperity brought unprecedented numbers to the beach, more and more of whom chose to retire there as time went on.
A century ago, Hawaii’s Waikiki Beach was a narrow ribbon of sand fringed by marsh; it was beefed up to its current expansive size with grains barged in from other Hawaiian islands, and at one point in the 1930s with sand shipped from California. Today it still requires regular renourishing.
Many of Spain’s Canary Island beaches were just rocky coastlines until developers dumped tons of sand imported from the Caribbean and Morocco on them.
The glamorization of the sandy beach gave rise to cities like Miami Beach and Fort Lauderdale. Roads built of sand made it possible for people to drive to them. Concrete made it possible to build whole cities in the middle of nowhere to house them all. Later, concrete built the vast theme parks—Walt Disney World, Universal Studios—which attracted even more people. Sand abetting sand abetting sand.
Washington subsidizes local governments and homeowners who build in imperiled coastal areas to the tune of billions of dollars in the form of insurance guarantees, disaster bailouts, and other protections. Taxpayer-funded beach nourishment also has the perverse effect of shoring up property values, a recent study found.
NOTE: to read further, be sure to buy the book, I left a lot out of the above