Sand, surf and science: 7 of the best beach stories of 2021

Cosmos Magazine


Cosmos is a quarterly science magazine. We aim to inspire curiosity in ‘The Science of Everything’ and make the world of science accessible to everyone.

By Cosmos

Nothing calls for science like a day at the beach! From super-strong sandcastles to swimming tips from stingrays, our favourite beach articles of the year will have you well prepared to hit the surf.

1. Sandy-dandy invention shows its strength

A superstrong sand structure could be used in aeronautics, according to new research.

Building sandcastles just got a whole new meaning, thanks to a manufacturing invention that has a sand-based polymer holding up to 300 times its own weight.

In the study, published in Nature Communications, the team 3D printed a 6.5-centimetre bridge that can hold 300 times its own weight – that’s like 12 Empire State Buildings sitting on the Brooklyn Bridge!

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Bridge pic hero 1
A novel polymer developed at Oak Ridge National Laboratory strengthens sand for additive manufacturing applications. A 6.5 centimetre 3D-printed sand bridge, shown here, held 300 times its own weight. Credit: Dustin Gilmer/University of Tennessee, Knoxville

2. Seagrass could help fight marine plastic pollution

Spanish researchers have found that seagrass meadows could purge hundreds of millions of plastic items from the seafloor to the shore each year in the Mediterranean Sea alone.

The grasses’ natural fibres aggregate and trap the plastic in balls, “which are then ejected and escape the coastal ocean,” write Anna Sànchez-Vidal, from the University of Barcelona, and co-authors in a paper in the Nature journal Scientific Reports.

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3. Surfers saving lives

Lifeguards save thousands of lives on Australian beaches each year, but it turns out that quick-thinking surfers may be the unsung heroes of ocean safety.

In 2015, Professor Rob Brander of the University of New South Wales (UNSW) – aka Dr Rip – published a study suggesting that surfers rescue as many people as volunteer lifesavers, and that 63% of surfers feel they have saved a life. Now, Bander and colleagues are kicking off a new study to quantify the number of good Samaritan surfers worldwide.

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210122 sharks
Credit: Andrew Thirlwell

4. Keeping bites at bay: the science of shark deterrents

It’s summer, the heat’s glimmering off the tarmac, and Australians are flocking to the beach. It’s when we start thinking about big marine predators – and how to prevent a shark attack.

Although shark-human interactions are rare and unlikely events, sharks are often at the back of every surfer’s or swimmer’s mind – and to capitalise on this perceived threat, a range of gadgets claiming to act as shark deterrents have entered the market.

Let’s take a look at the science behind these gizmos.

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5. How stingrays became such sleek swimmers

Have you ever wondered why stingrays are one of nature’s most hydrodynamic creatures?

With their smooth bodies and flexible fins, stingrays are among the slickest swimmers in the sea – but do their protruding eyes and mouths hinder their movement?

Scientists and stingray enthusiasts alike have long wondered this, and physics now has the answer: no.

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6. Turning the tide on wave energy

Researchers have invented a buoy that could make wave-energy generation viable.

Ocean waves have long been heralded as a source of energy, but so far it’s been difficult to turn this energy into electricity in a commercially viable way. A team of Australian and Chinese researchers has advanced the cause, developing a device that is twice as effective as any existing technologies.

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Satellite image of coast showing hardened artificial buildings
Coastline of Rotterdam, in the Netherlands. Credit: FrankRamspott / Getty Images

7. Tracking the hardening coast

As urbanisation increases, the world’s coasts are changing their physical shape: from fluid and mobile sand and eroding rocks and cliffs they’re becoming harder and simpler with the addition of piers, sea walls, and other engineering projects. The result could lead to less diversity of coastal species and nutrients in coastal environments.

A team of New Zealand and Australian researchers have quantified this, with a model that predicts what distance of coastlines are likely to become artificial – or harden – over the next few decades.

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