Geologists Studied the Sand From One of the D-day Beaches in Normandy. They Found That 4% Was Still Shrapnel

When looking at the sample collected from Omaha Beach, they found metal fragments as small as 1 mm.

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Eighty years after D-Day, its memory is still alive on the beaches of Normandy. And not in an ethereal, symbolic way. Beyond remembrance, the landing of the Allied troops in the French region in June 1944 left a palpable imprint in its sands. One that people can touch and see, although they might need an electron microscope. This was confirmed years ago by geologists who took a sample of sand from Omaha Beach. When they brought it to their lab and examined it in detail, they were amazed to find that 4% of it was shrapnel.

Going for a walk in Normandy. That’s what University of Texas geology professor Earle McBride and his colleague Dane Picard, a professor at University of Utah, did one day in 1988. While conducting a field study in France, they decided to take a break and visit the famous Omaha Beach, one of Normandy’s main D-Day landing sites.

They didn’t have much luck on their trip to Normandy. The day they walked along the five-mile sandy beach was unseasonably cold and windy, but that didn’t stop McBride and Picard from taking home a souvenir worthy of their training: a small sample of sand. Sometime later, they found the little bag of grains from Normandy and examined them under a microscope.

And they got a surprise. What McBride found in the Omaha Beach sand sample caught his attention. In addition to traces of quartz and other materials he had already expected, the geologist observed tiny metal fragments. When he examined them under a microscope, he found that they were rounded, rough, laminated, and dull in color, with some rust spots. Some pieces were about a millimeter in size. Others were no larger than 0.06 mm.

The remnants of battle. Reduced to millimeter-sized beads of metal eroded by the waves and the passage of time, they might be challenging to identify, but McBride came to a fascinating conclusion. What he had in front of him were remnants of the Normandy landings. “They turned out to be shrapnel from the World War II invasion,” the geologist said. According to the University of Texas, McBride also saw “iron and glass beads that had formed in the air and sand from the intense heat generated by the explosions.”

Given that this was a curious find, McBride wrote an article with Picard and published it in the journal The Sedimentary Record.

“It is, of course, not surprising that shrapnel was added to the Omaha Beach sand at the time of the battle, but it is surprising that it survived 40-plus years and is doubtless still there today,” the two experts said. They took the sample in the late 1980s and published the report in 2011. Still, all indicates that the situation remains the same today. In 2011, McBride and Picard estimated that it would take another century to destroy the shrapnel through corrosion.

A very measurable trace. If McBride and Picard's study is surprising, it's because it does more than just confirm that shrapnel remains scattered on the beaches of Normandy decades after D-Day. Just as interesting, if not more so, is the fact that the experts were able to come up with a precise idea of what these traces on the sandy beaches represent. After examining the sample in detail, the Texas geologist found that metals make up 4% of the sand.

The figure is illustrative, although McBride and Picard say there could be variations depending on where and when the sand is collected: “Because of possible plasticization of the shrapnel and heavy minerals by waves and currents on the day we collected our sample, we don’t know how representative it is of the beach sand as a whole.” Omaha was one of the significant D-Day landing sites. However, during Operation Neptune, the Allies reached other beaches such as Utah, Sword, Gold y Juno.

An expiration date. Geologists have discovered beads that have survived for decades and are a peculiar reminder of D-Day, but McBride and Picard warned years ago that they wouldn’t last forever. The shrapnel remnants could withstand erosion for millennia, but the geologists discovered rust particles while studying the beads, a finding that makes them pessimistic about the future. According to the University of Texas, “waves agitate the iron fragments, which in turn removes some of the rust and exposes fresh, more rust-prone material, which flakes off, and so on.”

“The result is that they get smaller and smaller, and eventually storms or hurricanes wash them up and take them off the beach,” McBride mused in 2011. His calculations suggested that the 4% of shrapnel identified at Omaha Beach would be minor within a century. But although the shrapnel might fade, monuments and memories will remain to commemorate the Allied landing.

Image | Person-with-No Name (Flickr)

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