War Sand

[Image: Geologist Earle McBride's microscopic images of war sand on the beaches of Normandy].

A short piece in the September/October 2012 issue of Archaeology magazine highlights the presence of spherical magnetic shards—remnants of the D-Day operations of World War II—found hidden amongst natural sand grains on the beaches of Normandy. "Up to 4 percent of the sand is made up of this shrapnel," the article states; however, "waves, storms, and rust will probably wipe this microscopic archaeology from the coast in another hundred years."

This is not a new discovery, of course. In Michael Welland's book Sand, often cited here on BLDGBLOG, we read that, "on Normandy beaches where D-Day landings took place, you will find sand-sized fragments of steel"—an artificial landscape of eroded machines still detectable, albeit with specialty instruments, in the coastal dunes.

I'm reminded of a line from The Earth After Us: What Legacy Will Humans Leave in the Rocks?, a speculative look by geologist Jan Zalasiewicz at the remains of human civilization 100 million years from now. There, we read that "skyscrapers and semi-detached houses alike, roads and railway lines, will be reduced to sand and pebbles, and strewn as glistening and barely recognizable relics along the shoreline of the future."

The oddly shaped magnetic remains of World War II are thus a good indication of how our cities might appear after humans have long departed.

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Anonymous Nottingham Science Blog said...

Fascinating, but I get nervous when I see the phrase "up to" - is the 4% overall? or just in small locations? If in small locations what is the level in rest of the beach? Why are the particles spherical? Would be great to get answers to some of these questions.

August 11, 2012 10:46 PM  
Blogger Geoff Manaugh said...

Nottingham, Earle McBride's piece for The Sedimentary Record—which I had not seen prior to writing this post—answers many of those questions. Here is a direct link to the PDF. (Thanks to @YAppelbaum for the tip.)

August 12, 2012 7:51 AM  
Anonymous T Jones - NC said...

When I was in school, my science teacher told us to how to find micrometeorites by passing a plastic-wrapped magnet over the sandy material found on the splash skirt at the end of gutter downspouts. When you looked at the material picked up by the magnet under a microscope, you would see some perfectly spherical objects similar to those in this article. Apparently, the tumbling passage through the earth's atmosphere rounded off the metallic meteorite, producing the spherical shape. Wonder if some of these items on the beach are actually micrometeorites, rather than war debris? Would tossing about in the sand of a beach also produce perfectly spherical metal grains? T. Jones - Chapel Hill, NC

August 13, 2012 10:35 AM  
Anonymous Jason C. said...

The spherical fragments are most likely bits of steel that became molten when munitions exploded, then cooled in midair into spherical shapes.

August 13, 2012 5:16 PM  
Anonymous Umbriel said...

I suspect the 4% figure stretches the definition of "shrapnel" -- I'm sure the total mass of shell fragments and projectile debris from the invasion is less than that of other metallic wartime debris -- Beach obstacles like the iconic "hedgehogs", wrecked vehicles, rebar from German fortifications, the ships sunk as breakwaters and other structural components of the Mulberry harbors, etc.

August 13, 2012 5:52 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

the spherical shape might also been produced by fragments of molten metal(shrapnel)falling into water,if my memory serves me properly,the higher that the molten metal falls the larger the "shot"will be.this is how lead shot(pellets for shotgun cartridges etc) used to made.i think this method has been replaced by newer technology
!!!dont try this at home,it is very dangerous,i have scars from my youthful attemps at making shot following a holiday visit to an 1800s shot tower in tasmania!!!!!

August 20, 2012 9:41 PM  

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