Researchers can still find traces of the battle at Omaha Beach in Normandy, France after the World War II invasion 68 years ago .
Earle McBride, geological sciences professor emeritus, discovered traces of iron shrapnel that have remained on the battle site of the 1944 Allied invasion of Normandy. McBride’s research was recently published in the September 2011 issue of the geology journal, The Sedimentary Record. McBride said the discovery happened by chance while he and his colleague Dane Picard were working on another study in an area near Omaha Beach.
“We were traveling, studying the downstream variation of the Rhone River,” McBride said. “We took samples about every 15 miles, and went to see Omaha beach as tourists. We collected the sand in 1988, and about a year later, I looked at the sand under a microscope.”
McBride found that four percent of the sand was made up of angular iron sand grains, which were not consistent with the rounded and eroded pattern of regular sand grains. Additionally, the heat from explosions during the 1944 battle melted the quartz in the sand to create small glass beads scattered on the site.
McBride said the discovery of these wartime remnants took him by surprise.
“We never gave it a thought, which is sort of stupid because as geologists we know that a lot of modern sands have man made grains in them,” McBride said. “We should have predicted it, but it wasn’t until I got it back to Austin and had it under a microscope that we noticed these iron angular grains.”
The discovery was exciting because it demonstrated researchers’ ability to see where humans leave their mark over long periods of time, McBride said.
“It’s a neat story,” McBride said. “It happened in a very disastrous time and was a terrible event, but it was very interesting that we could demonstrate that modern sand can keep this kind of record.”
Despite the traces of battle left behind for nearly seven decades, McBride said the pieces of shrapnel will not last long on the beach.
“Those sand grains have a very long history, and the rocks that they derive from may be tens of millions of years old,” McBride said. “In terms of the shrapnel grains, their life is limited because they are rusting. Saltwater is corrosive to most metals, especially iron. I would predict that those shrapnel grains will be gone in two hundred years.”
Geological sciences professor Gary Kocurek said the type of geology involved in McBride’s study can allow for many types of studies linking land formations to significant events.
“This is the forensic geology, which is sort of a sub field,” Kocurek said. “You carry kind of a track of where you’ve been. Everything that happens on the surface of the planet is recorded in the sediment. There’s really nowhere else for it to go.”
Kocurek said research linking geological formations to historical events is difficult to fund without ties to historical or anthropological studies.
“There’s a million different research studies happening at the Jackson School,” Kocurek said. “They’re usually more current, dealing with climatic or geomorphic studies or things like that. This is the only one I’ve heard of where the science is linked to historical events.”