Sand is one of the most life-essential, civilization critical, and taken for granted commodities on Earth. It is everywhere and very abundant. There are about as many grains of sand on Earth as there are stars in the universe.
As hyper-abundant as sand is on Earth, new research indicates that we are in danger of running out.1 A study reveals that between 1900 and 2010 the volume of natural resources used in buildings and transport infrastructure increased by 23 times.2 Sand made up the majority of these natural resources. Furthermore, sand demand is projected to dramatically increase in the coming years.
The main driver of increasing exploitation of sand is rapid urban expansion and rapid technological advance. Sand is a key ingredient in concrete, asphalt, glass, and electronics. Sand also is used in ceramics, as filler for paint and rubber, in preparing silicon carbide, fused quartz, and in many gels.
Sand, or silica, is found in many algae species, especially in the hard shells of diatoms, and in the stems of many vascular plants. It is essential for maintaining the texture and moisture retention of terrestrial soils that advanced plants require.
Sand is a rare commodity in the universe and it was rare on Earth. In fact, Earth did not begin with any sand at all.
As I explained in my book, Improbable Planet,3 it took strong, enduring plate tectonic activity and abundant liquid water at a specified temperature and pressure to gradually, chemically transform Earth’s basalts into silicates. It took liquid water on Earth at a highly fine-tuned level of abundance and stability and, likewise, plate tectonic activity at a highly fine-tuned abundance and stability level to transform Earth from a water world into a realm where continents today cover 29 percent of Earth’s surface and oceans the other 71 percent. It also took a very efficient and globally active water cycle to establish silicate erosion whereby rain falling on exposed silicates (landmasses above sea level) acts as a catalyst to transform atmospheric carbon dioxide and continental silicates into sand and carbonates (another critically important industrial and biological resource).
If it were not for Earth’s highly fine-tuned plate tectonics operating for four billion years, if it were not for Earth possessing a highly fine-tuned quantity of water (0.03 percent of Earth’s volume), and if it were not for Earth possessing a highly fine-tuned water cycle, Earth would not possess the huge quantity of sand that it does. Because of these fine-tuning requirements, it is highly improbable that any other body in the universe possesses as much sand as does Earth. Earth very likely is by far the sand champion of the universe!
God knew we humans would need a lot of sand to sustain civilization and make possible the redemption of billions of human beings. However, God also gave us a command (Genesis 1 and Job 37–39) to manage Earth and Earth’s resources for our benefit and for the benefit of all life. This command includes wisely managing Earth’s sand resources.
The misconception that sand is a limitless resource already is resulting in devastating ecological, agricultural, and health consequences. Aggressive sand extraction from beaches, seafloors, and rivers damages seashore and benthic ecosystems. Seaweeds, seagrass, kelp, corals, and shellfish are directly removed. Such sand mining enhances erosion, reducing sea and river water light availability, which diminishes photosynthesis. Such sand mining also removes natural barriers to tsunamis and to storm surges from typhoons and hurricanes.
In Sri Lanka, saltwater intrusion resulting from sand mining has reduced the drinking water supply and caused severe declines in crop productivity.4 Standing water pools created by sand extraction has provided breeding sites for malaria-transmitting mosquitoes. In West Africa, sand mining has been linked with an increased level of the emerging bacterial disease, the Buruli ulcer.5
In India, the demand for sand is so high that it has spawned a sand mafia. The Indian Sand Mafia now ranks as one of the most powerful and violent organized crime groups.6 Hundreds have been killed in India’s sand wars.
What are the solutions to the present and looming sand shortage crises? First, we need to be grateful toward God for gifting us with such an astoundingly sand-rich planet. Second, we need to appreciate just what a valuable resource sand is and how important it is not just for our livelihood and wealth but for the livelihood of most of Earth’s plants and animals and especially for the food crops on which we depend. Third, we need to stop wasting sand and do everything we can to recycle it. Fourth, we need to adopt more efficient means for harvesting sand and select mining sites that are the least impactful of the environment. Fifth, we need to find more efficient ways of transporting sand from sand-rich to sand-poor regions of the world. Sixth, we need to pursue solutions to our civilization advances that do not require so much paving and concrete.
Thank God that he has endowed this magnificent planet, our home, with so much sand. Thank God he has enabled us to discover its many purposes and uses. And thank God he has given us the wisdom to manage our sand resources for the benefit of all.
- Aurora Torres et al., “A Looming Tragedy of the Sand Commons,” Science 357 (September 8, 2017): 970–71, doi:10.1126/science.aao0503.
- Fidolin Krausmann et al., “Global Socioeconomic Material Stocks Rise 23-Fold Over the Twentieth Century and Require Half of Annual Resource Use,” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences USA 114 (2017): 1880–85, doi:10.1073/pnas.1613773114.
- Hugh Ross, Improbable Planet (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2016): 169–62.
- Kiran Pereira and Ranjith Ratnayake,Water Integrity in Action. Curbing Illegal Sand Mining in Sri Lanka(Water Integrity Network,Berlin,2013), https://www.waterintegritynetwork.net/wp-content/uploads/2015/04/Case_SriLanka_SandMining_EN_2013.pdf.
- Richard W.Merritt et al., “Ecology and Transmission of Buruli Ulcer Disease: A Systematic Review,”PLOS Neglected Tropical Diseases4 (December 14, 2010): e911., doi:10.1371/journal.pntd.0000911.
- Aunshul Rege, “Not Biting the Dust: Using a Tripartite Model of Organized Crime to Examine India’s Sand Mafia,”International Journal of Comparative and Applied Criminal Justice40(second quarter 2016): 101–21, doi:10.1080/01924036.2015.1082486.