Monthly Archives: July 2017

Scintillating sand, super sand, scarce sand. Save our sand! Go out and shout about sand!

Somehow my research as a Geographer and Quaternary Scientist1 has involved me digging a lot of holes and collecting a lot of sand from deserts. However, it is not so often I get to step back and think about sand found in other environments and about the global importance of sand as a natural resource. There are some immense challenges that are starting to emerge as the result of a scarcity of sand, or at least the scarcity of the right type of sand for the enormous appetite that our society has for all of the many things that have sand as a crucial ingredient.

1 A Quaternary Scientist is someone who investigates the long term workings of, 
and changes to, the environments and climate of the last 2.58 million years.


Sand is defined by the size of the particle (0.0625 to 2 mm in diameter) and not the composition (what it’s made up of).

Sand is most commonly made up of quartz (a form of silica) and other silicate minerals, such as feldspar and garnet, as well as bits of broken shell and coral, gypsum, volcanic glass, basalt, and other minerals. If you want to get an idea of the vast variety of types of sand, have a look at this superb Sandatlas site by Simm Sepp for lots of lovely pictures of many different types of beautiful sand.  All of these particles get gradually broken down from bigger rocks (or shells etc.) through time by the action of ice, water and the wind. Most sand grains have undergone a long journey, having been through many rotations around the rock cycle.


Figure 1. Sand on the left hand side is sand from desert regions, where thousands of years of being blown around in the wind has knocked off the angular edges and rounded the grains. The less round sand on the right hand side with sharper edges is associated with being broken down by ice or water, and will have been bouncing around in the environment for a shorter amount of time (less time to smooth those edges).

Sand can be classified by shape, from spherical and smooth (left hand side in Figure 1) to more oblong and sharp (or angular) (right hand side in Figure 1).


Sand doesn’t just get between your toes and sneak into your bag at the beach. It has quietly (and sometimes very noisily) infiltrated into every corner of the world and our lives – many of which you might not be very aware of. What’s clear is that we can’t live without it, following the types of lives that we are living.

For making GLASS: windowpanes, wine bottles, drinking vessels, spectacle lenses, electric cooker hobs, chopping boards, smartphone screens…


Within CONSTRUCTION: Sand contributes 60 % of the ingredients of reinforced concrete used for buildings (2/3rd of the world’s buildings are made of reinforced concrete) and roads (for a km of motorway, 30,000 tonnes of sand is consumed!).

Inside our ELECTRONICS: Electronic chips use high quality sand (silica) within our computers, phones, stereos, bank cards etc.


To make FILTERS: Filtration of our water supply at sewage works uses sand, as do septic tanks and swimming pool filters.

For SPORTS: golf bunkers might spring to mind. Maybe also beach volleyball, which requires a very specific type of sand crafted from the right range of grain sizes (it can’t have too much fine material, as it gets too stiff underfoot and players suffer injuries). For the London 2012 Olympics 2,270 tonnes of sand were delivered for the beach volleyball event (that’s 20 blue whales, or ¼ of the Eiffel Tower weight of sand!). Which other sports can you name where you see sand quite obviously? Sand is also used within some artificial turf surfaces for a wide range of sports.

In a slightly more hidden source – within PRODUCTS: Sand is key ingredient of silicon dioxide (SiO2): a mineral found in products including wine, cleaning products, paper, dehydrated food, hairspray, toothpaste and cosmetics. Sand is in plastics, paints, tyres… The list is immense.

And let’s revisit construction, in the context of BUILDING NEW LAND: Perhaps the most extreme example of humans using sand is the artificial sand islands that have been created out in the Persian/Arabian Gulf.  For example, Palm Jumeirah cost >$12 billion and used > 150 million tonnes of sand (dredged from the coastline of Dubai). This enormous reconfiguration of land and sea seems somewhat insane, but thanks to the souring price of land in Dubai it was actually cheaper to build more land to build on than buy up what was left to build on! The madness spiralled into ‘The World’, an artificial archipelago made of sand, costing > $14 billion and using three times as much sand as the Palm. This collection of new sand islands has been almost completely abandoned since the 2008 global financial crisis, although in December 2016, there was reported progress of development on the ‘Heart of Europe’ islands. In order finish building ‘The World’ and construct the world’s largest building (Burj Khalifa) Dubai had to import sand from Australia, because they had already used up all of their suitable sand!


The best estimate from the United Nations is that we use around 40 billion tonnes per year. Those sorts of numbers become rather incomprehensible, even employing our Blue Whales and Eiffel Tower equivalents! (200 million Blue Whales and 5 million Eiffel Towers).

Eye-openingly, this is twice the amount of sand moved by all of the rivers of the world in one year. This makes humans the largest transforming force on the planet when it comes to shifting sediment about.

Sand is the 2nd highest used raw material on Earth, and that’s a second only to water! We use at least 5 times more sand than we use coal every year.

SandAnd the point to shout about, to anyone that will listen, is that we are using sand far far far more quickly than it is getting replenished (naturally produced within the environment). We are mining it unsustainably, and there are vast environmental consequences!



So where is all of that sand coming from? And this is where I learn that the beautiful seas of sands within deserts2 should be safer for a little longer.

2It has been found that desert sand is not actually the right kind of sand for
 much of human usage. It is too smooth and too round for construction, it doesn’t
 stick together. It is so smooth and round because as the wind blows the sand
 around in the desert, the sharp edges are knocked off. In water there is a very
 fine film of water, which reduces the amount the grains rub against each other 
and removing the sharper edges. How round a grain of sand gets also depends on the 
amount of time it has been moving around since it was eroded from a larger piece
of rock (shell, coral, etc.).

Initially most sand came from quarries, just like the sand quarries that are found close to the BlueDot festival site here in Cheshire, and dredged from rivers. However, as demand has increases there has been a huge shift to:

  • coastal beach deposits (LH side below)
  • dredging sand from the ocean floor (RH side below)

beach miningsand dredger


There consequences of removing 40 billion tonnes of sand per year and turning it into built urban infrastructure, and new islands, and billions of products, is that the size of the land that was made of sand is decreasing in extent. That means disappearing beaches, or whole islands. That means increased erosion in rivers, leading to bridges being undermined. That means shrinking deltas. That means huge disruption on the sea bed from mining via sand dredging. That means losses of river, delta and marine habitats and ecosystems.


Placing restrictions of the extraction of sand has led to an extensive underground network of criminal activity. Criminals, illegally digging up, transporting and selling sand.  In India, the ‘sand mafia’ controls an illicit marker of a head-scratching $2.3 billion per year!


Building using recycled concrete materials and also using more wood, bamboo and straw.

Increased rates of recycling of sand-rich products, such as sand.

We can even produce sand for construction from recycling glass!

Ultimately in a world run by profit and large corporations, perhaps the Placing a higher cost on sand, and incorporating the environmental costs, as a disincentive to its over-mining. But, as we see from the sand mafias, this just pushes the problem into the non-formal sector. So it looks like we need a more fundamental shift in the sands, and that is a shift away from the reliance of modern society on sand!

So. Please.

Go shout about sand!

Even for a minute or two. Talk to your family, your neighbours, your friends. There is a huge gulf (of missing sand) between the huge size of the problem of over-mining the Earth’s sand and the size of the public awareness of the problem(s) (and the size of these beautiful tiny particles).


To learn more, watch Sand Wars, a film by Denis Delestrac.


Blue dotting across/ within the universe – A weekend of science and music

This weekend, I’m off to my first BlueDot festival with a bunch of fantastic colleagues from the Department of Geography at the University of Manchester. That’s Dr Emma Shuttleworth in the photograph humouring me by allowing me to take a test-ride inside one of our new carts that will transport our equipment onto the site. If you don’t know what BlueDot is, I’ll try to capture it in a sentence… It’s part of the summer festival line-up that the UK does so well, and one with a twist – it’s not just about the music, it’s a celebration of science and discovery. It’s an all-out geek fest/festival of superb exploration, set within the grounds of a deep space observatory (bonus sentence). Selling it?

To turn to the website for 2017, this year is about the uncertainty and fragility of our environment, here on planet Earth, that Pale ‘Blue Dot’, photographed from outer space by the Voyager 1 space probe on February 14th ,1990. The message from the festival this year is a powerful one, and I’ll share it with you here.

"In an era of political divisiveness and environmental uncertainty, 
bluedot aims to cultivate a unifying celebration for citizens of the world. 
Its 2017 message is loud and clear: look again at that dot.
That’s here. That’s home.
 That’s us. (Carl Sagan, 1934—1996).

To inspire and entertain.
To explore the frontiers of human advancement.
To celebrate science and the exploration of the universe.
To explore the intersections of science, culture, art and technology.
To highlight the fragility of planet Earth. "

At the heart of the festival is a commitment to the environment, and I’m delighted to see Teresa Anderson’s (Director at Jodrell Bank) post a blog this week outlining the festivals commitment to REDUCE THE PLASTIC IMPACT this year!  This means, no single use plastic straws or cutlery and banning plastic bottles on site. So pack your own water bottle in your rucksacks (or buy a beautiful re-usable BlueDot metal one at the festival) and pack some cutlery to use for the whole weekend! Why not a bamboo coffee cup too for your hot drinks! This will help reduce the amount of plastic that ends up chocking the environment, particularly the oceans, and entering the food chain.

The topic of plastics is a perfect segue to tell you more about what the merry band of Geographers are hoping to talk to you about at the festival. Our stall is ‘The Day After Tomorrow – Living in the Anthropocene’ and will feature an  activity where you can search for and identify (micro)plastics yourself with our microscope. 

Over the three days of the festival we’ve got lots of exciting activities that showcase our work on how humans impact and interact with the environment. Pick up your ‘Citizen of the Anthropocene’ sticker, step into our Anthropocene passport control to pick up your passport and collect stamps (we count 7 in our planning meeting today) as you start learning about how you are living in the Anthropocene.*

  • We’ll be going back in time to investigate the legacy of pollution from the Industrial Revolution in the NW.
  • We’ll be exploring how we still use the natural resources of the local area (look out for me dressed as a golfer and carrying lots of little pots of sand) and discussing how sand is a much rarer natural resource than you might think!
  • You can search for, and identify, tiny pieces of plastic (a clear ‘marker’ for the Anthropocene) using our microscopes.
  • You can look down microscopes at the tiny fossils we use to learn about past climates.
  • We’ll be calculating the carbon footprint of your journey to the festival and discussing how these can be reduced or offset.
  • Find out about University of Manchester Geographers are tackling peatland restoration along with Moors for the Future Partnership.
  • We’ve also teamed up with our friends at Play Fuel who have developed a street game ‘Downpour’ based around our research on flood mitigation. You can play to try to beat the clock to save Manchester from the next big flood!

You can read more in the official festival programme about what the Anthropocene* is, and please come and talk to the team during the weekend if you are at the festival. Pick up your sticker and collect a stamp from each of our activities over the weekend for your Anthropocene passport! We are looking forward to meeting you! I’ll post a sand-resources related blog next, if, like me, you are particularly interested in these tiny particles.


I’m riding down to the festival site on this trusty cargo-bike steed, and I currently feel a little on the wobbly side, so if you see me on route, please send me a supportive thought (don’t honk your car horn, as I might just overturn). It’s very long. Thank you to Triangulum and SEED social responsibility for partnering up so that I can hire this free of charge! If you want to try one out too, have a look here.




*The Anthropocene is the idea that human activities have influenced the environment to such an extent that traces of these activities will remain visible in the sediment and rock record for millions of years to come. To justify the definition of a brand new ‘epoch’ (to use the geological terminology), these impacts must be sufficiently distinctive to what has come before.