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The sands of time

July 2012  


Sands of timeSummer is here and as soon as the sun shines thousands of people head off to sandy beaches.

Good sand is a wonderful substance, soft with a nice feel to walk or lie on but firm enough to provide a good base for cricket or beach volleyball. Sand doesn’t retain or dissolve in sea or rain water; it dries quickly after a soaking; and it can be smoothed or made into all sorts of interesting shapes. Clean sand doesn’t stain, and when dry is easily brushed off towels or clothing.

What a perfect border for the sea!

Most of us know sand is formed naturally from tiny particles of rock and minerals. Generally larger rocks are broken down over years and centuries by weathering. This includes not only wind and rain, but also freezing and then thawing. Chemical weathering also plays a part, perhaps from chemicals found in rainfall (ie acid rain) or from chemicals released by nearby organisms. Once of course the rock has been reduced to a certain size, they will more readily be tossed abut and worn by wind and water, and they will then also suffer from abrasion from particle against particle making them even smaller.

Eventually these particles are carried around by wind and water to be deposited in some cases to form beaches and banks. The process can take millions of years, so beautiful sand beaches are areas that should be hugely treasured and respected.

There are many different types of sand, coarse and fine grained, shimmering white to almost black, and the differencies are dependent on the rocks and minerals that have gone into the formation of the sand. Generally the sand is related to surrounding geology but sometimes beaches have been made from sand that has been transported by water from areas many miles away. One of the whitest sand beaches in the world is said to be Crescent Beach at Siesta Key in Florida. Here the sand is composed of 99% pure quartz which started in the Appalachian mountain range a long way further north. It slowly was eroded until it was small enough to be captured by the flow of rivers and eventually was deposited on the shores of Siesta Key.

The sparkling white sand beaches that are shown so often in travel publicity are usually made up of quartz, an abundant material in the earth’s crust that can create really fine white particles. Interestingly, pure quartz stays fairly cool even under the hottest sun, something that can be very useful on a sunny beach in summer!

Another white sand is formed from calcium carbonate. This can come from particles from limestone rocks but also from the hard bodies of corals and certain shellfish.

Black and dark sands, by contrast, are usually formed from particles weathered down from volcanic rocks. These can be found across the world from the Canaries to Hawaii and can offer all the advantages of sand including softness, but don’t dazzle as much as the pure white quartz sand.

Thanks to different geology, there is also a huge range of coloured sand around the world between these two extremes of white and black. Hana Bay in Hawaii for instance has really red sand thanks to its iron rich hills surrounding the bay.Volcanic deposits have helped to produce orange sand on the Maltese island of Gozo, while local minerals have helped form olive green sand beaches in the Galapagos Islands, Guam and Hawaii’s Mahana Bay.

Sometimes strange coloured beaches can be found which are only coloured temporarily. For instance, Pfeiffer Beach in California is sometimes turned a bright purple because manganese garnet is washed through the sand from the surrounding hills.

Digging down on a beach can sometimes expose different sand in areas where layering may have taken place.

Sand is always transportable by vigorous weather. Wind, rain, high tides and currents will all take control of fine sand particles. As you read this, some lovely beaches are being slowly eroded as sand is being taken on every tide and washed further along the coast. The good news is that new beaches are also being formed.

Sand collecting is a growing hobby and if you dry sand from a variety of beaches, it can become very clear that there are enormous differences in texture and colour. However, there are some areas where sand collecting is banned, so always check before you scoop!

There is an interesting Canadian site on sand collecting:

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