A brief and fascinating tour of the world's sands
The wealth and diversity of sands form a living museum of the history and current state of our planet.
To see a World in a Grain of Sand
And a Heaven in a Wild Flower,
Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand
And Eternity in an hour.
- William Blake
What are we standing on? The ground beneath our feet, the sand with which we build egg timers and castles, seems to be just an accumulation of minerals, but it is much more than that.
There are more varieties of beaches in the world than we could care to imagine. There is Glass Beach, California, for example, where the sea has polished enormous quantities of glass from the early 20th century to the extent that the sand is a collection of multicolored glass beads. Or Perran Sands, in Cornwall, England, where pieces of Lego wash up every day, castaways from a cargo vessel that was hit by a giant wave.
Hyams Beach, in Jervis Bay, Australia, is considered the world’s whitest, but there are also black beaches such as Punalu’u Beach in Hawaii, where the dark sand is volcanic ash. And there are colored beaches too, like the green beaches of Norway and the Galapagos.
In Bermuda, certain beaches are completely pink. The sand there is made of diminutive shells of creatures called foraminifera. These strange, single-cell organisms make their shells from organic materials, grains of sand and other substances. They eat algae, bacteria or other organisms and live almost entirely on the seabed. Some of them stick to rocks while others move very slowly at 1cm per hour. Foraminifera also live on one of the world’s most beautiful beaches, Hoshizuna no Hama, on Japan’s Iriomote island. If you look closely at the sand there you will see it is made of thousands of tiny stars. The stars are actually the shell of a strange species of foraminifera called Baculogypsina sphaerulata.
We tend to think that sand is made up of minute rocks, bleached by the ocean, but it is more alive than we think. The sand on beaches tells the story of the world, of the centuries of waves, storms, volcanic eruptions and rocks. And it also tells a living story, the story of many beings, of fantastical shapes and colors that live beneath our feet without us realizing it.
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