Beach Awash in Amber

WORLD

A severe storm has left a Russian beach covered with pieces of amber. (St. Petersburg Times)

Use our resources to understand why amber is nicknamed “fossil resin.”

Teachers, scroll down for a quick list of key resources in our Teachers’ Toolkit.

Would you be able to spot beautiful Baltic amber like this on a beach? Photograph by Ewa Dryjanska, courtesy Wikimedia. CC-BY-SA-3.0

Would you be able to spot beautiful Baltic amber like this on a beach?
Photograph by Ewa Dryjanska, courtesy Wikimedia. CC-BY-SA-3.0

Discussion Ideas

  • The St. Petersburg Times—that’s St. Petersburg, Russia, not Florida!—describes Kaliningrad, the region of Russia where the amber appeared, as an “exclave.” Use our MapMaker Interactive to find the Kaliningrad Oblast. (An oblast is an administrative district, similar to a state or county.) What is an exclave? Why is Kaliningrad an exclave? Can you think of other examples of exclaves?
    • An exclave is a small region of land that is politically associated with a larger piece of land, but is physically surrounded by foreign territory.
    • The Kaliningrad Oblast is an exclave because it is a relatively small piece of land politically associated with Russia (a much larger piece of land), but physically separated from it by Poland and Lithuania. Because Kaliningrad is not entirely surrounded by foreign lands (the Baltic Sea accounts for about a third of its border), it is technically a pene-exclave, or partial exclave.
    • The world’s largest exclave (or pene-exclave) is the U.S. state of Alaska. It is separated from the “Lower 48” by Canada’s Yukon Territory and province of British Columbia. Here’s a good Wikipedia list of other exclaves around the world.

 

  • What is amber? How is it different from other gemstones, such as diamonds or rubies?
    Like other gemstones, amber must first be polished before being incorporated into its most popular use, in jewelry. Photograph by Lanzi, courtesy Wikimedia. CC-BY-SA-3.0

    Like other gemstones, amber must first be polished before being incorporated into its most popular use, jewelry.
    Photograph by Lanzi, courtesy Wikimedia. CC-BY-SA-3.0

    Jewelers use emery wheels like this one to shave off the "crust" of amber and polish the stone beneath. Photograph by Paul Zahl, National Geographic

    Jewelers use emery wheels like this one to shave off the “crust” of amber and polish the stone beneath.
    Photograph by Paul Zahl, National Geographic

    When polished, amber can be translucent. Photograph by Dean Conger, National Geographic

    When polished, amber can be translucent.
    Photograph by Dean Conger, National Geographic

    Most amber is used in jewelry, but it is also an ingredient in some traditional medicines and sometimes burned for its evergreen fragrance. Photograph by Bruce Dale, National Geographic

    Most amber is used in jewelry, but it is also an ingredient in some traditional medicines and sometimes burned for its evergreen fragrance.
    Photograph by Bruce Dale, National Geographic

    As anyone who has seen or read Jurassic Park knows by now, amber is also an outstanding preserver of prehistoric fossils, like this Jurassic grasshopper. Photograph by Paul Zahl, National Geographic

    As anyone who has seen or read Jurassic Park knows by now, amber is also an outstanding preserver of prehistoric fossils, like this Jurassic grasshopper.
    Photograph by Paul Zahl, National Geographic

    • Amber is a substance created by resin, a type of liquid produced by trees. (Resin is not sap, another type of liquid created by trees.) Resin, a protective substance, oozes out of trees when they are cut or threatened by insects or fungi. Dripping resin can sometimes trap seeds, feathers, and even animals such as ants or mosquitoes in its viscous goo. Not all resin becomes amber. Organic substances such as resin are usually broken down by weather (such as extreme temperature changes or rain) and decomposers in the food web (such as bacteria and fungi). For resin to become amber, it must resist such decay. It must also undergo tremendous pressure, similar to the process that creates petroleum from organic substances. Seams or globules of amber are mostly pressurized beneath tons of marine or terrestrial sediment.
    • Unlike gemstones such as diamonds and rubies, amber is an organic material. It was made by living things (trees), not geologic processes.

 

  • How did a severe storm bring amber to a Russian beach?
    • Millions of years ago, the area that is now the Baltic Sea was a vast forest covered by resin-producing evergreen trees. Many of these trees produced resin that resisted decay and was preserved under tons of ocean sediment. In fact, more than 90% of the world’s amber is Baltic amber, mined from Kaliningrad (Russia), Poland, Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia, and the countries of Scandinavia that border the Baltic Sea.
    • Unlike many gemstones, amber is relatively buoyant and floats in seawater. Tides, currents, and storm waves wash rip up pieces of amber from the seafloor and transport them to Baltic beaches on a fairly regular basis. In fact, “fishing” for amber seems to be a familiar sight in the Baltic.

 

  • The most familiar type of amber is orange-yellow or green in color. However, amber is also found in red, white, and even blue colors. All amber formed the same basic way. Why do you think there are different colors?
    Blue amber, also called Dominican amber and found only on the Caribbean island of Hispaniola (particularly the Dominican Republic), is is one of the most valuable types of amber. Photograph by Paul Zahl, National Geographic

    Blue amber, also called Dominican amber and found only on the Caribbean island of Hispaniola (particularly the Dominican Republic), is is one of the most valuable types of amber.
    Photograph by Paul Zahl, National Geographic

    • Different trees
      • Botanists have determined that the traditional yellow-orange Baltic amber was produced by extinct species of trees whose only extant (living) relative is a Japanese pine.
      • Blue amber was produced by extinct species of trees distantly related to plants now found in the Amazon rain forest.
    • Different resin
      • White amber is usually the traditional yellow amber discolored by billions of tiny bubbles.
      • Red amber (sometimes called cherry amber) is usually the traditional yellow amber that was exposed to air for a long period of time before being covered by sediment and pressure. The oxygen in the air slowly “burned” (oxidized) the amber.

 

TEACHERS’ TOOLKIT

St. Petersburg Times: STORM CASTS WAVES OF AMBER ON KALININGRAD BEACH

Nat Geo: Pionersky, Kaliningrad, Russia (map)

Nat Geo: Trapped in Amber (photo)

2 responses to “Beach Awash in Amber

  1. Pingback: Telltale Tail Trapped in Amber | Nat Geo Education Blog·

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