Tuesday, June 18, 2013

The Geology of War

As of June 6, marks the anniversary of the beginning of Operation Overlord, the World War II D-Day invasion. On that day in 1944, more than 156,000 Allied troops landed on five heavily fortified beaches along an 80 kilometer (50 mile) stretch of the coastline near Normandy, France. A series of bloody battles ensued, resulting in nearly 10,000 casualties and over 4,000 soldiers killed on the first day.

A battle like this must have left some lasting scars on the Earth. Indeed, researchers have discovered that remnants of the battle remain locked in the sands of the Normandy beaches. Geologists Earle McBride and Dane Picard traveled to France for some field work in 1988. While on the trip, they visited Omaha Beach as tourists and collected sand samples for a personal collection. A few years later, McBride studied the sand under a microscope and discovered numerous tiny pieces of metal in the sand. The metal grains were angular and shard-like, not naturally formed. Additional testing revealed large amounts of iron in the metal shards, proof that they had likely come from shrapnel. The shrapnel accounted for approximately 4 percent of the sand sample, and ranged in size from 0.06 to 1.0 millimeter. Glass and iron beads from explosions and intense heat were also present.

Unlike the radioactive fallout of the atomic bomb testing, these fingerprints of the D-Day invasion will probably not last very long. McBride believes the shrapnel remnants may remain for a century or so. He noticed signs of rust on the shrapnel particles. The constant wind and wave energy will eventually wear away these grains until they are no longer detectable in significant amounts.




Photo of Omaha Beach, Saint-Laurent sur Mer, Normandy, February, 2011, credit dynamosquito

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