A new global map shows that sand mining is a major problem

The United Nations Environment Program warned today that people are extracting an alarming amount of sand from the seabed. An average of 6 billion tons of sand is taken from marine environments each year, according to a new global data platform of the United Nations Environment Programme.

That amounts to more than a million dump trucks of sand extracted every day to make concrete and glass, build new artificial beaches, or rejuvenate eroding shorelines. The pace is becoming unsustainable, placing increasing pressures on marine life and coastal communities.

“It’s not sustainable.”

“It’s not sustainable. The amount of sand we pull out of the environment is significant and it has significant impacts,” Pascal Pedozzi, director of the UN Environment Programme’s analytics center called GRID-Geneva, said at a news conference today. He compared the problem to deforestation or poaching, when people use Resources faster than they can be replenished.

Concrete is the second most used material in the world after water, and sand is the main ingredient in the ubiquitous building material. Glass and semiconductor chips are also made from silica sand. There are also plenty of artificial beaches around the world, such as newly built islands or former wetlands that have been paved over to expand a city’s footprint.

Unfortunately, the seemingly insatiable demand for sand is taking its toll. As sea levels rise and beaches shrink, some communities rely on sand dredged from the nearby sea floor to replenish beaches. And the United Nations Environment Program warns that in the future there may be less of that sand available for coastal defences. And when companies take sand from rivers, less sediment flows to shores that need it.

Removing the sea floor to collect sand also kills marine life. If too much sand is extracted, “life may not recover,” Pedozi said at the news conference. There is also noise pollution and changes in water turbidity that can harm marine life.

To monitor sand mining around the world, the United Nations Environment Program has developed its own data platform called Marine Sand Watch. It uses artificial intelligence and a vessel tracking system called the Automatic Identification System to identify dredging vessels and map sand extraction around the planet. The United Nations Environment Program adopted a resolution last year to commission the Global Resources Database in Geneva to advance its understanding of sand mining in order to support global policy.

Some of the most intense sand dredging occurred along the coast of China and the east coast of the United States, according to the new data. This could pose risks to each country’s renewable energy ambitions, because shifting sand dunes could affect offshore wind turbines.

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