Sand Resource Extraction Strains the Function of Critical Ecosystems

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Sand Resource Extraction Strains the Function of Critical Ecosystems

An urgent call to action from an opinion paper examines the harmful impacts of sand resource extraction on the ecological health of dunes, beaches, and aquatic ecosystems. This paper illuminates how the concrete industry uses these materials to meet the demands of 8 billion people and foretells the dire environmental ramifications if such a rate of depletion were to progress.  

Rangel-Buitrago, N., Neal, W., Pilkey, O., & Longo, N. (2023). The global impact of sand mining on beaches and dunes. Ocean & Coastal Management235, 106492.

Sand dunes and beaches comprise two of Earth’s most critical systems, where humans, plants, and wildlife interact (Buitrago et al., 2023). These environments offer crucial services to humans. Some of the benefits include recreation, tourism, coastline protection from storm energy, and carbon sequestration. Dynamic sandy ecosystems also create wildlife and plant life habitats for congregations of species. These ecosystems directly improve human community’s economic vitality (i.e., shorebirds generating tourism revenue).

Private corporations and natural resource governmental agencies also extract sand to meet the needs of construction and fracking projects. Although sand resources maintain the operation of large industries, researchers display the long-term ecological drawbacks. The overharvest of aquatic adjacent sand within lightly regulated markets, such as in coastal Moroccan and Southwestern Illinois cities, harms a variety of ecological processes. These processes relate to local plant extinctions, wildlife behavioral changes, and losses in functional groups.

From the Journal of Ocean and Coastal Management, Buitrago et al. 2023 explore the ecological impacts of river and marine sand extraction. They assert that sand plays a substantial role in the growth of civilizations because of its usage in the construction industry to yield cement. Cement constitutes one of the major elements of concrete. Sand dunes near water bodies and beaches are popular for extraction because of their optimal particle size and durability when compared to finer desert sands. Removing material from these less ecologically diverse desert environments seems biologically sound, but the construction industry simply necessitates other types of sands. 

Sand dunes and beaches host an assortment of ecological communities. Many have adapted to coastal conditions such as: constantly shifting substrates, strong wind, salt spray, and concentrated human interactions. Human-plant-wildlife interactions within dunes are now concentrated due to increasing urban effects, proximity to visit sandy places, and fewer available habitats. Besides the uncontrolled climate changes, sand dunes and beaches also confront the physical loss of material. Machinery operators remove sand from dune systems, rivers, shallow marine areas, and beaches, often immediately degrading fish, avian, and mammalian habitats.

If physical habitat loss does not occur during the time of disturbance, some species will attempt to move from the stressor. Small mammals and birds cannot move far from these dunes due to adaptation limits, or their ability to transition between habitats. Beaches and dunes also contain plant communities that cannot move freely within their habitat. These organisms experience the most significant losses because they cannot depart from danger. Communities of plants minimize erosion within sandy ecosystems while storing large amounts of carbon. A globally recognized decline in sand-dependent plant communities limits the functionality of entire ecosystems. Associated wildlife species also have fewer habitats to occupy. Less diverse wildlife communities per sandy habitat result in changing food web dynamics, which alter interactions.

The researchers urgently recommend the idea of reducing sand consumption to mitigate further species and functional losses. Sand dunes and beaches require years to develop, sometimes upwards of 20 to replenish lost material. Resource extractors interfere with this process, which resets the cycle of sand generation. Without wide-scale and enforced regulations, this limited resource will become scarcer. Scarcity will force industries to extract within any available environment, even if the ecological conditions would drastically worsen. If this situation arises, habitat loss will occur at an unsafe rate, potentially pressing entire ecosystems beyond the point of recovery. At this point, humans will lose important benefits stemming from a balanced relationship with sandy ecosystems.  

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