Why sand mafias are forming and what science has to say about it

Great Sand Dunes National Park is in Colorado.
Great Sand Dunes National Park is in Colorado.

Who doesn’t love a movie where the good guys take out some big organized crime or mafia ring?

Most often we associate organized crime with illegal drugs, weapons or money laundering. However, have you ever seen a movie that has a sand mafia in it?

To be clear, have you ever seen a movie where there is an organized crime ring full of corruption, theft and murders while the bad guys smuggle bags of sand?

Probably not — but believe it or not, it’s happening in real life. Yes, the world now has sand mafias with the same kind of high-stakes drama and crime that we have come to know in more traditional organized crime groups. Let’s take a look at why this is happening.

Where sand starts

The process of weathering creates sand. Rocks break apart and continue to break apart into smaller and smaller bits. Eventually the bits are small enough to be called sand.

Wind and water create most of the sand on Earth. There seems to be an unlimited amount of this stuff, which reminds us how old the Earth is.

Sand is made from whatever rock broke apart. Different parts of the world have different kinds of sand. The typical white sand we think of is made from tiny bits of weathered coral. There are several black beaches in the world, and that comes from eroded basalt from volcanoes.

Hawaii also has a green beach and that sand is weathered from green olivine rock. There is a pink beach in the Bahamas, and that comes from bits of weathered red shells mixed in with the white sand. There is a red beach in Canada that is made from weathered sandstone.

And there are even a few purple beaches that get their color from eroding manganese garnet rock.

Disappearing sand

Now that you know how sand is made, it’s time to talk about the problem. We make so many things from sand. Of all the many tons of things we mine from the Earth, sand makes up 85% of the mass of mined materials.

It goes to make roads, bricks, buildings, glass and new beaches. Wait — what? But sand comes from beaches, right?

Some beaches naturally have sand, but many coastlines don’t and that sand is trucked in for the enjoyment of visitors. When the next big storm comes in, the sand washes away and the beaches have to be remade with tons more sand.

Some island countries even use sand to increase the size of their country. That takes a lot of sand. And finally, some of the coastal or island countries are buying tons of sand to try and combat the rising sea level due to climate change.

The United States alone purchases $8.6 billion worth of sand a year for construction and beach repairs.

Countries are simply running out of sand and they need it badly. Because of this, organized crime groups in India, Italy and other countries are illegally trading sand and making huge profits. The operation consists of bribing politicians, violent conflicts and even murder. The countries of Singapore, Indonesia, Malaysia and Cambodia are all getting into heated conflicts … over sand.

You may think about the deserts full of what seems to be limitless sand and wonder what the problem is. The problem is that desert sand is created by wind erosion. Wind-created sand is very round. It is so round that it cannot hold up in construction or beach applications. Therefore, desert sand is not a usable resource for the applications countries are begging for.

So what is the solution? Nobody really knows. Sand has always been thought of as such a limitless resource that nobody has really considered what to do when it runs out. People are now starting to think about it, but they are way behind as the problem is already here and will get worse over time.

Next time you need to fill that sandbox with sand, expect the price to cost a bit more over the next few years. At least in this country we don’t have to buy it from the mafia — yet.

Mike Szydlowski is science coordinator for Columbia Public Schools.


1. How is sand made?

2. Why do we need so much sand?

3. Why can we not use desert sand for construction or beach purposes?

4. Why is climate change making the sand crisis worse?

5. Why do you think some beaches lack natural sand?


1. Climate has changed in the past. Why do you think the change we are experiencing now is different?

Climate changed much slower in the past. The current pace of change is faster than evolution can keep up with.

2. Why do some animals practice monogamous relationships?

The animals that practice monogamous relationships rely on knowing and understanding the other mate in order to give their offspring the best chance at survival.

3. What relationship is there between animal breeding habits and monogamous relationships? (In other words, why don’t all animals act the same?)

It is believed that monogamous relationships are a greater benefit to animals that have complex or quick mating windows.

4. Of the approximately 4,000 mammal species on Earth, about how many have monogamous relationships?

4000 animals x 4% (.04) = 160 mammals

5. Why do you think scientists care about the divorce rate of the albatross?

The scientists care because there is evidence that rapid climate change is disrupting the normal mating habits in animals, thus putting their populations at risk.

This article originally appeared on Columbia Daily Tribune: Why sand mafias are forming and what science has to say about it