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CoastLine: Vanishing Sands: Losing Beaches to Mining with Duke Professor Orrin Pilkey

Sea levels are rising.  Storms are intensifying.  And the world’s sandy beaches and dunes are more important than ever for the protection of coastal environments.  And yet sand mining is on the increase — much of it for beach nourishment.  But is beach nourishment doing what we want it do?  And is the public money used for beach protection actually preserving a public resource for the public good? 

It’s a 21st century problem that didn’t start until the late 1900s: mining beaches, dunes, and other waterways around the world for 40 billion tons of sand a year.

Why is this a problem? Isn’t sand one of those endless resources?

Apparently it’s not. In fact, even the old metaphor for infinity – the uncountable grains of sand on the beaches – doesn’t hold up. It’s been quantified. Mathematicians at the University of Hawaii say there are seven quintillion, 500 quadrillion grains of sand on earth.

Rising sea level and the resulting damage are two major reasons that the world should stop coastal sand mining, according to a team of geologists and coastal development researchers, led by Dr. Orrin Pilkey of Duke University. Beach and dune mining, they write, is disastrous for both the tourism industry and the ecosystem. In Vanishing Sands: Losing Beaches to Mining, published in 2022 by Duke University Press, the authors explain why sand mining is at crisis levels – threatening beach, dune, and river ecosystems.

On this edition of CoastLine, we explore why the appetite for sand is growing – for construction, beach nourishment, and minerals. We also find out why coastal geologist Orrin Pilkey stands behind one of his earliest contentions about beach nourishment, saying, “There is no beach erosion problem until there is something there to be affected by erosion.”

We hear why he insists shoreline engineering of any kind “protects the interests of a very few, often at a very high cost in federal and state dollars.”


Dr. Orrin Pilkey is Emeritus James B. Duke Professor of Earth and Ocean Sciences at Duke University. He’s written more than 24 books. In 2022, Duke University Press published Vanishing Sands: Losing Beaches to Mining.

Additional Resources:

Sea Level Rise: A Slow Tsunami on America’s Shores, Orrin Pilkey, Keith Pilkey

Sand Wars – the documentary by Denis Delestrac (2013)

UN report:  Sand and Sustainability (2022)

Rachel hosts and produces CoastLine, an award-winning hourlong conversation featuring artists, humanitarians, scholars, and innovators in North Carolina. The show airs Wednesdays at noon and Sundays at 2 pm on 91.3 FM WHQR Public Media. It's also available as a podcast; just search CoastLine WHQR. You can reach her at rachellh@whqr.org.