The Story Behind The Beach: A Grain of Sand

There are few pleasures more enjoyable than the feeling of sand between your toes on a soft warm beach. Although some areas definitely have too much of it, others have too little. But the question remains: “what is sand?” Other than “that stuff on the beach” or “what’s in a sandbox?” you won’t get a clear answer, because very few people really know what sand is!

A dictionary will tell you that “Sand is a granular material composed of finely divided rock and mineral particles in various compositions defined by their grain size”. Too scientific? Then let’s get down to the real answer.

In the TV series “Third Rock from the Sun” (1996 to 2001) they had the astrophysics right. Earth is the third distant rock from the sun and the fifth-largest of the eight rocks, which we call planets, circling it.

Bird tracks in sand

Bird tracks in sand at Wasaga Beach

Yes, sand is, or at least was, rock, a long time ago. Before that it was hard granite, gneiss and volcanic rock, formed 4.5 billion years ago when our earth was born. There was no sand. Only volcanic rock. The stuff that escaped from the fiery core of the universe and solidified to form the tiny rock we call earth. Humans arrived only 6 million years ago. Much of the sand had already been created.

After the volcanic magna cooled, Canada was left with the Canadian Shield. The Shield is one of the world’s largest geological features, wrapped around Hudson Bay and stretching 8 million square kilometers across Canada. It is also one of the world’s largest storehouses of mineral resources such as iron, silver, copper, gold, nickel, niobium and zinc, and minerals such as graphite, dolomite, mica and ilmenite.

The Shield consists of different rocks with a complex history. The natural forces of erosion over millions of years broke up some of the rocks until they became smaller and smaller, ending up as sand. Sandy places like Wasaga Beach and others in the Southern Georgian Bay have been built up by the sands of the Bay.

In some locations there are now 40 meters of sand on top of the Canadian Shield. The process is continuing today with the building up of dunes, as long as it is not interfered with by human recreational over-use.

Microscopic sand grains

Microscopic sand grains

Some 600 to 225 million years ago, much of southern Ontario was tropical. That lasted for about 400 million years. Ontario was flooded repeatedly by warm, shallow, coral seas. Those seas left behind organic sediments of shells, silt, clay, sand and coral.

The North American Continent was floating on several tectonic plates. It continues doing so even today, which is the cause of more than 4,000 earthquakes each year in Canada. Most of them are too small to be felt. My own experiences with earthquakes in Ontario are limited to two in 1988 and 2010. They are much more frequent in the West, along the entire West Coast of North America and on Vancouver Island and Haida Gwaii.

Unknown to most people is the fact that sand is alive. As you let it run through your fingers, you are returning between 10,000 and 100,000 of the tiniest microorganisms to their environment. The cracks in sand corns are home to large colonies of organisms. So at least say a group of scientists of the German company Pharmaceutical Microbiology Resources, who have been studying the sands of the North Sea.

Sand is one of the most sought-after commodities in the world. Skyscrapers, houses, bridges, roads etc. require sand for their construction. In some parts of the world sand is an “endangered species”. Beaches disappear because of high water levels and other reasons, so communities permanently “borrow” and even steal sand from healthy beaches and deserts and bring it to their “sick” beaches.

Leaf on Wasaga Beach

Leaf on sands of Wasaga Beach

Internationally, sand has been shipped illegally to and from many countries at incredible profits. Singapore is the world’s largest sand importer with 517 million tons in the last 20 years because of its building boom. Dubai, much of which is in the African Desert but of which only 5% is sand desert, is second.

The biggest exporters of sand are the United States, the Netherlands, Germany and Belgium. Desert sand is not suitable for building construction because of its crushed shell and coral structure.

The sand corns around our Southern Georgian Bay are not perfectly round. However, on the west side of the Bruce Peninsula the Singing Sands Beach Provincial Park near Tobermory is famous for its round sand grains. This sand produc a “singing” sound by rubbing against each other when driven across the wide and flat exposed beach by the wind.

In the Southern Georgian Bay the sands do not sing. Beaches in this area are too narrow for the sand to drift far enough to produce any sounds. But it is heard in many larger desert locations around the world.

Written by

Peter Iden is a resident of Wasaga Beach and a Naturalist and Photographer who has a broad range of knowledge of the natural world. Peter is also a volunteer Warden for the Piping Plover Recovery Programme with the Friends of Nancy Island.

Email: cmis-cbc@rogers.com

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