A Look At Our Beach Sand

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Long Island’s highly touted beaches, including those that have made coastal geologist Steve Leatherman’s number one ranking in recent years, have several favorable qualities. But most important among their key attributes is the nature of our beach sand.

I’ve visited a lot of beautiful beaches around the world, and learned that not all sand was created equal. Long Island’s beach sand is composed of perfectly sized grains that make a very comfortable surface for walking barefoot, and when you reclining, they gradually conform to the shape of your body like an expensive Posturepedic mattress.

I’m one of those people who enjoy lying directly on the warm beach sand sans towel or blanket. That’s definitely not the case for everyone. One of my close high school friends was extreme in his dislike of sand, constantly brushing off bits that clung to his skin and small piles that mysteriously crept onto his blanket. One day at Jones Beach he made the sacrilegious announcement that if only there was a lawn to lie on, the beach would be perfect!

Beach sand has some remarkable characteristics. Despite a very high proportion of quartz—a very light colored mineral—among the many minerals that comprise our beaches, beach sand can get as hot as black asphalt: 150°F! I’m not sure how that is possible, but I found the maximum temperature for beach sand in Bill Perry’s excellent book, “Sierra Club Naturalist’s Guide to the Middle Atlantic Coast.”

While our beach sand is easily brushed off, it has an amazing tendency to stick to things—legs, coolers, surfboards and kayaks—even when it dries. A quick, post-beach shower will not always get the sand off my calves and ankles, and a bit of the beach always ends up in my bed during the summer. Author and longtime beach bum Russell Drumm once wrote something to the effect that sand in his bed was not an annoyance, but a pleasant reminder of a good day at the beach.

Among beach sand’s most notable characteristics is its habit of showing up where it’s not welcome, and disappearing from where it is needed and sorely missed. I’ll take a guess and say that many millions of dollars have been spent on Long Island trying to move sand away from where it is causing problems, and depositing sand where it once was but is now gone. Based on recent work involving both removal and placement that I’ve observed, there’s still a lot that we don’t understand about the comings and goings of beach sand. And then there are some lessons that many of us simply refuse to acknowledge.

Heavy equipment operators put in over a week of work excavating a small 10-by-10-foot hole east of Main Beach, East Hampton, where the Hook Pond culverts terminated. Not unlike when a child tries to maintain a small hole below the high tide line with a plastic shovel, as soon as the backhoe operator’s shovel removed a cubic yard of wet sand, a couple of waves pushed another yard into the hole. They did manage to get the culvert flowing for a while.

A number of nor’easters have filled the Gerard Drive culvert linking Accabonac and Gardiners Bay since it was first installed a few years ago. But Sandy managed to fill the culvert to the point that a person couldn’t even crawl through it. Trying to maintain an inlet (or outlet) in one spot on a sandy barrier beach is a difficult task.

Ditto for maintaining roads, houses and septic systems. Barrier beaches have been moving for thousands of years. It’s probably best to recognize that and stay out of their way.

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