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The Amazing Life of Sand | Deep Look

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 Biology   |   Environmental   |   Science
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There's a story in every grain of sand: tales of life and death, fire and water. If you scooped up a handful of sand from every beach, you'd have a history of the world sifting through your fingers.

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DEEP LOOK: a new ultra-HD (4K) short video series created by KQED San Francisco and presented by PBS Digital Studios. See the unseen at the very edge of our visible world. Get a new perspective on our place in the universe and meet extraordinary new friends. Explore big scientific mysteries by going incredibly small.

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---+ How does sand form?

Sand can be anything that has been worn down until it’s reduced to some tiny, essential fragment of what it once was: a granite pebble from the mountains; coral from the sea; obsidian from a volcano; even skeletons of microscopic sea animals. It's also a technical term. Bigger than sand, that’s gravel, smaller? Silt.

By studying the composition and texture of sand, geologists can reconstruct its incredible life history. “There’s just a ton of information out there, and all of it is in the sand,” said Mary McGann, a geologist at the United States Geological Survey in Menlo Park, CA.

McGann recently took part in a comprehensive research project mapping sand’s journey into and throughout San Francisco Bay.

Patrick Barnard, another USGS geologist who helped oversee the project, said that it will help scientists understand how local beaches are changing over time. In particular, Barnard wants to understand why beaches just south of San Francisco Bay are among the most rapidly eroding beaches in the state.

From 2010-2012, Barnard and his team sampled beaches, outcrops, rivers and creeks to track sand’s journey around the bay. They even collected sand from the ocean floor. The researchers then carefully analyzed the samples to characterize the shapes, sizes, and chemical properties of the sand grains.

Barnard said the information provides a kind of fingerprint, or signature, for each sample that can then be matched to a potential source. For example, certain minerals may only come from the Sierra Mountains or the Marin Headlands.

“If we’ve covered all of the potential sources, and we know the unique signature of the sand from these different sources, and we find it on a beach somewhere, then we basically know where it came from,” explained Barnard.

And those species aren’t the only things finding their way into the sand. Manmade materials can show up there, too. McGann has found metal welding scraps and tiny glass spheres (commonly sprinkled on highways to make road stripes reflective) in sand samples from around the bay.

“All of these things can get washed into our rivers or our creeks, or washed off the road in storm drains,” explained McGann. “Eventually they end up in, for example, San Francisco Bay.”

By piecing together all of these clues – the information found in the minerals, biological material and man made objects that make up sand – the researchers ended up with a pretty clear picture of how sand travels around San Francisco Bay.

Some sands stay close to home. Rocky sand in the Marin Headlands comes from nearby bluffs, never straying far from its source.

Other sands travel hundreds of miles. Granite from the Sierra Nevada mountains careens down rivers and streams on a century-long sojourn to the coast.

In fact, much of the sand in the Bay Area comes from the Sacramento and San Joaquin rivers, with local watersheds also playing an important role in transporting sand to the beach.

Although this project focused on San Francisco Bay, the same techniques could be used to study other coastal systems, he added, revealing the incredible life stories of sand from around the world.

---+ More Deep Look episodes:

What Happens When You Zap Coral With The World's Most Powerful X-ray Laser?
https://youtu.be/aXmCU6IYnsA

These 'Resurrection Plants' Spring Back to Life in Seconds
https://youtu.be/eoFGKlZMo2g

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Full article: http://blogs.kqed.org/science/2014/11/04/the-amazing-life-of-sand/

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---+ About KQED

KQED, an NPR and PBS affiliate in San Francisco, CA, serves Northern California and beyond with a public-supported alternative to commercial TV, Radio and web media.

Funding for Deep Look is provided in part by PBS Digital Studios and the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation. Deep Look is a project of KQED Science, which is also supported by HopeLab, the David B. Gold Foundation, the S. D. Bechtel, Jr. Foundation, the Dirk and Charlene Kabcenell Foundation, the Vadasz Family Foundation, the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation, the Smart Family Foundation and the members of KQED.

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