Block of the Week: Gravel
Power to the Pebble
If there's one block that you don't want to run into while mining, it's unquestionably lava. Lava can really ruin your day. But if there are two, then we'd vote for the second one being gravel, a mild irritation that also happens to be our block of the week.
Gravel has been a part of Minecraft since May 2009, when it was added to the game alongside other basics like sand, coal and trees. Unlike those blocks, however, it's always been largely decorative - spawning in pockets underground that really get in the way when you're digging a tunnel, or in small quantities on beaches and near pools of water.
If for some reason you need large quantities of gravel, then you've got three options. The first is to hunt down an extreme hills M biome, which is full of entire mountains made of gravel. The second is to visit the Nether, where it spawns in big veins between y-levels 63 and 65. But the third, and probably easiest, is to dig or swim down to the bottom of an ocean biome, where it covers the sea floor.
As you've no doubt noticed, gravel behaves exactly like sand and anvils in that it'll fall if there's nothing underneath it. If it lands on a mob or player, covering their head, they'll start to suffocate unless they move or dig their way out. If gravel lands on a non-solid block, however - like a torch, slab, or minecart rail - then it'll break and become an item. Neat!
This quality is particularly handy when dealing with large pockets of gravel underground. If you know that digging through a block is going to cause a cascade of gravel, then place down a torch where the gravel will land and the whole column will be converted into easy-to-pick-up items.
If Minecraft gravel is largely decorative, then real-world gravel is enormously useful. Globally speaking, far more roads are covered with gravel than with concrete or tarmac. In Russia alone, more than 400,000 kilometres of road is surfaced with gravel. Not only that, but gravel is a crucial ingredient in the construction industry: it's used to make concrete, to make roof tiles, to make icy roads less slippery in the winter, in landscaping and even in water filtration.
Thankfully, it's pretty easy to find. Gravel is all over the place in the real world, created when erosion by water, weather or ice break big rocks up into smaller pieces. Particularly large deposits of gravel were left behind on the southern edge of the glaciers that covered the northern hemisphere in the most recent Ice Age - which is why you'll find so many gravel pits in Canada and northern and central Europe.
So the next time you're crunching your way down a gravel driveway or path, take a moment to think about where that gravel might have come from. Maybe it was once part of a mighty mountain, broken down into tiny chunks tens of thousands of years ago by the inexorable force of an ice age. Maybe it was a cliff that was torn to pieces by waves during a winter storm. Or maybe it was just a boulder that was broken into bits by humans with power tools. Either way, it's pretty darn impressive!
- Duncan Geere