A question for you: Coming after air and water, what is the third most in-demand natural element in the world?
No not beer.
OK, so that’s a nice useless fact for the day, except there is a looming problem wrapped in this tidbit, and it’s bound to cause problems in the golf industry.
“We need to stop taking sand for granted and think of it as an endangered natural resource,” wrote John R. Gillis in a recent New York Times op-ed piece about the looming sand shortage, thanks in part to the constant rebuilding of beaches.
Gillis is a professor emeritus of history at Rutgers University and author of “The Human Shore: Seacoasts in History.”
How bad is the sand situation?
“Seventy-five to 90 percent of the world’s natural sand beaches are disappearing, due partly to rising sea levels and increased storm action, but also to massive erosion caused by the human development of shores,” reads the New York Times piece.
Those pristine beaches around the world so many of us love are oftentimes created, or recreated, as the tides take away but do not replenish.
“Virginia Beach alone has been restored more than 50 times,” Gillis wrote in the piece, an astounding fact.
Then there is the rebuilding of the East Coast barrier islands, which, according to Gillis, “have used 23 million loads of sand, much of it mined inland and the rest dredged from coastal waters – a practice that disturbs the sea bottom, creating turbidity that kills coral beds and damages spawning grounds, which hurts inshore fisheries.”
And this isn’t just about beach replenishment.
“The sand and gravel business is now growing faster than the economy as a whole. In the United States, the market for mined sand has become a billion dollar annual business, growing at 10 percent a year since 2008,” wrote Gillis.
Concrete still takes 80 percent of all that mining can deliver and is the largest industrial user of sand.
You can be sure that golf is not adding a significant amount to the increase in the sand and gravel business, but it will feel the pinch at some point. Regularly topdressing greens and fairways might someday be an expense only the wealthiest of the wealthy facilities can afford.
Sand is also a vital component in the manufacturing of items from microchips and toothpaste to glass and plastics and is used in hydraulic fracturing.
According to Gillis, the demand is so high now that a “sand rush is underway in the northern Midwest after deposits of high-quality silicate were discovered.”
Use isn’t the only cause of the sand shortage; there’s a problem with the delivery system. As Gillis explains, sand comes from the mountains, making its way via rivers to the ocean, and then brought to land by the tides. Dams have stopped that progression. The sea no longer creates beaches at the rate it once did, but it continues to reclaim them. For ocean resorts worldwide, that is a concern, and their problem could very well be a golf predicament. The resorts will invariably recreate what they need to survive, from whatever sources fit the bill, including sand mines that supply golf courses.
Ironically, deserts are of no help when it comes to beach building. Dubai, located within the 900,000-square-mile Arabian Desert, imports its beach sand from Australia, because desert sand doesn’t bind with beach sand and blows away.
Then there’s the environmental and human effect of taking sand that’s never replenished from a shore, as discussed on the CoastalCare.org website.
“Another major impact of beach sand mining is the loss of protection from storm surges associated with tropical cyclones and tsunamis,” the site states.
According to the website, the death toll and destruction of the 2004 tsunami in the Indian Ocean may have been exacerbated by beach mining, which allowed the storm to surge higher than if the beach was left intact.
The worldwide demand for sand is so large that illegal mining operations and a “sand mafia” are widespread in India, according to Gillis.
Even though glass and concrete can be recycled so that the sand within can be reused, it isn’t enough to feed the voracious appetite for sand.
I contacted Gillis and pointed out that a sand shortage would create havoc in the golf course maintenance world.
He answered my email soon after.
“This is another dimension of the problem that I had not considered,” he wrote.