The World Is Built on Sand, and We're Running Out

Use of sand 'greatly exceeds natural renewal rates'
By Michael Harthorne,  Newser Staff
Posted May 25, 2017 5:26 PM CDT

(Newser) – Like sand through an hourglass, time is running out for the world's, uh, sand. The New Yorker takes a nitty-gritty look at sand—a topic that is both less simple and more bleak than one would think. In industrial circles, sand is known as aggregate, a category that also includes gravel, crushed stone, and more. Aggregate makes up 80% of concrete and 94% of asphalt. A 2004 report found a typical American house requires more than 100 tons of aggregate and one mile of one-lane highway needs 38,000 tons. The world's hunger for aggregate is only increasing. A UN scientist says China consumed more aggregate in the past four years than the US did over the past century. And violent "sand mafias" are fighting for aggregate in India.

All of this is to say that aggregate is the most heavily exploited natural resource in the world besides water. It's used in cellphone screens, water-treatment facilities, oil and gas drilling, and much, much more. But a UN report in 2014 found the mining of aggregate "greatly exceeds natural renewal rates." To make matters worse, not all sand is created equal. Special blends for beach volleyball and equestrian shows are transported at great cost all around the world. And desert sand isn't really good for anything because its grains are too small and round and without enough fractured faces. That's why Dubai's golf courses, built on and surrounded by desert sand, have sand traps filled with aggregate shipped from the US and Canada. Read the full story here to find out why climate change is only going to make our sand problem worse. (Read more Longform stories.)

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