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Rebuilding shorelines with environmental conservation in mind

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Amidst a winter marked by fierce storms and flooding, particularly in late December, extensive damage has been inflicted upon the protective sand dunes and bathing beaches of Germany’s North Sea islands.

Coastal regions on popular islands like Sylt, Borkum, and Norderney, which collectively draw millions of tourists annually, now face the daunting task of reconstruction ahead of the summer holiday season—a process both extensive and costly.

This reconstruction effort, commonly referred to as beach nourishment, involves the meticulous transportation of sand to rebuild depleted coastlines. Lower Saxony’s state government, home to Borkum and Norderney, has pledged financial support of up to €700,000 (approximately $760,000) to fortify the region’s primary economic asset.

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Does the process of rebuilding beaches come at an environmental cost?

The sand utilized to replenish North Sea beaches typically doesn’t originate from distant locations. In past years, it has been sourced from adjacent areas along the shore or neighboring islands. As one official noted in a local news outlet back in 2017, the sand “isn’t gone, it’s just somewhere else.”

For instance, the island of Sylt has been employing sand from the ocean floor for beach replenishment over the past four decades. Dredging vessels extract a mixture of sand and water from the seafloor approximately 8 kilometers (5 miles) offshore. This dredged sand is then deposited onto the beach and in offshore reef zones, effectively mitigating the impact of incoming waves.

While this method is preferable to importing sand from distant regions, it does pose environmental repercussions for coastal and river ecosystems. The extensive dredging process can disrupt underwater habitats and nesting sites for various species, thereby exacerbating coastal erosion and increasing the likelihood of landslides, phenomena already on the rise due to climate change.

Furthermore, the removal of sand from the ocean floor can lead to the natural movement of coastal sand, causing further retreat of beaches. Additionally, beach nourishment is a temporary solution, as the replenished sand is eventually washed away, necessitating ongoing maintenance.

Fortunately, alternatives to offshore dredging exist, which can mitigate the environmental impact. Some cities, such as Manila and Miami, utilize sand from inland sources like mines, quarries, rivers, and lakes. However, experts emphasize the importance of using sand that closely matches the composition of the specific beach to avoid potential contamination and protect local flora and fauna.

Why is sand such a critical resource?

Sand ranks as the second-most-utilized resource on Earth after water, according to the UN Environment Program. Its significance extends beyond beach reconstruction, playing a vital role in the construction sector for making concrete and glass.

Moreover, specialized sand, such as silica, is indispensable for manufacturing silicon, a crucial component in circuits and microchips. Notably, Germany, among the world’s top sand importers, imported approximately 1.55 million metric tons of sand in 2022, alongside other major importers like the United States, Belgium, the Netherlands, Canada, and China.

Are there viable alternatives to sand?

Despite the abundance of sandy deserts like the Sahara, their sand is often unsuitable for industrial purposes due to its smooth, wind-shaped grains. Only the jagged particles found in rivers, lakes, and oceans are suitable for making strong concrete and other products.

Given the escalating demand for sand, driven by rapid urbanization and digitization, sand mining has increased significantly, reaching over 50 billion metric tons annually. This surge in demand has led to illegal dredging in countries like India, Vietnam, and China, where environmental regulations are lax.

However, alternatives to traditional sand mining do exist. Glass recycling offers a sustainable solution, as recycled glass can be ground into particles and utilized in construction and beach replenishment. Additionally, fly ash, a byproduct of fuel combustion, can serve as a primary binder in concrete, reducing the reliance on sand.

In conclusion, while beach nourishment serves as a necessary measure to protect coastal regions from erosion and preserve tourist destinations, it is imperative to explore sustainable alternatives to minimize the environmental impact of sand extraction and promote ecosystem conservation.

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