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[Image above] Sand mining in Laos. Credit: Michigan State University

Earlier this year, Eileen reported that one of the world’s most seemingly abundant raw materials is actually a dwindling resource.

Sand, the stuff strewn far and wide across beautiful beaches and vast deserts, is a raw material that is also critical for today’s society and its ever-expanding infrastructure—sand is a component of concrete, asphalt, brick, and glass, for instance, making it an integral material in the construction industry and beyond. (OK, quick disclaimer: beach and desert sand isn’t the same as construction sand.)

In fact, sand and gravel are the most extracted materials in the world. I could provide you with some staggering figures here, but there’s no point—according to an article on The Conversation, those numbers like grossly underestimate global sand extraction because many countries’ official records hide true extraction rates. The bottom line is that the numbers are high and continue an upward trajectory.

Which just might help me get to my point—there’s a looming sand scarcity that’s being hidden by the mirage of endless sand supply, according to the authors a new perspective article published in Science. According to their research, sand scarcity is such an imminent threat that we now need to develop a global sand governance strategy.

“It is time to treat sand like a resource, on a par with clean air, biodiversity, and other natural endowments that nations seek to manage for the future,” the authors write in an article on The Conversation about their research.

That’s because the growing market for sand is not expected to slow anytime soon. Urban expansion and development are further increasing its demand, fueling a dangerous tipping of the already unsteady relationship between sand supply and demand.

Plus, in addition to construction, sand is helping fuel the burgeoning hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, business as well. Frac sand is used to hold (or prop—hence the term “proppant”) fractures in the earth open so that natural gas can flow out of the well and to the surface for collection.

Silica sand supplier U.S. Silica just announced that it’s building another frac sand mine and plant in west Texas. The new plant is expected to have an annual production of 2.6 million tons of frac sand when it gets up and running in early 2018, as part of the company’s plan to up frac sand output by 8–10 million tons to meet “surging frac sand demand.”

The Science paper authors write, “Current development trends suggest that sand demand will increase further in the coming years. The resulting acceleration of sand extraction, trade, and consumption will have escalating effects on environmental and human systems. There is a pressing need for an effective global sand governance system.”

In part, that governance is required because unregulated sand mining and extraction practices have negative consequences on societies and worldwide human interactions. High profits mean that everyone wants a slice of the pie, so illegal sand trade has increased, bringing along disputes and violence over the coveted resource. There’s even such a thing as “sand wars”.

Plus, sand mining has negative environmental impacts on both the land and its inhabitants, including coastal erosion and destroyed or disrupted habitats. We’re changing the environment in our efforts to gather up sand and ship it to faraway locations, and those actions trickle down and have further negative consequences by disrupting entire ecosystems.

Part of the problem with the global sand supply cycle is rooted in misconceptions about the material as a resource. Sand’s easily accessibility and inexpensive price have bred the illusion that the material is practically unlimited. And because there’s nearly unlimited access to sand—it’s found just about everywhere across the globe—its consumption is incredibly difficult to control.

But its consumption must be controlled, the Science paper authors urge. And to do that, we need a better understanding of the global sand supply cycle, which at present, is surprisingly unknown.

“As with many natural resources the world depends upon, sand is a perfect example of transactions that seem simple, but in reality, are deeply complex and rife with inequity and risk,” Jianguo “Jack” Liu, Michigan State University’s Rachel Carson Chair in Sustainability and director of the Center for Systems Integration and Sustainability, says in a Michigan State press release. “A system approach is needed to avert disasters and achieve sand sustainability.”

The scientists are using a system integration approach to analyze socioeconomic and environmental interactions across distances and over time, in an effort to help develop a more complete picture of the global sand supply and demand cycle.

According to the Michigan State release, the team—which contains scientists from Michigan State University, German Centre for Integrative Biodiversity Research, Boise State University, and University of Georgia—is launching the first international effort to systematically examine global sand supply and demand.

“With increased attention to the complex linkages of sand scarcity, our global community can begin to understand how to use sand more sustainably and avert a tragedy of the sand commons,” the authors conclude in their article.

The article, published in Science, is “A looming tragedy of the sand commons” (DOI: 10.1126/science.aao0503).

Interested in learning more about global sand supply? There’s a documentary called Sand Wars all about it—check out the brief trailer below.

Credit: Guillaume Rappeneau; YouTube

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