Watching the Numbers Go By

June 1st, 2010

I became aware of this PBS oil leak widget last week.

There is something mesmerizing about watching the numbers scroll past.

The numbers of gallons leaked is so high at this point that it seems unreal. How did this happen? Why isn’t it fixed yet? Can that really be the low estimate?

I can’t even wrap my brain around the enormity of the disaster. What do the numbers really mean?

So, here are some numbers I’ve calculated as I try to make sense and get perspective:

The low estimate of around 20,414,200 gallons (and rising) is about 486,052 barrels of oil, or 30 Olympic sized swimming pools. This quantity of oil would fill the tanks of approximately 1,360,946 cars, assuming a tank size of 15 gallons. That’s more cars than the number of people who live in San Francisco.

Or, it could fill my car’s tank nearly 1.4 million times. My car gets 25 miles to the gallon on average, and can potentially travel 375 miles on one tank of gas. I could conceivably drive somewhere around 510,355,000 miles with the low estimate of how many gallons have leaked so far. That’s 20,414 times around the earth’s equator, or 2041 times to the moon (or about 1020 round trips).

It’s 93 million miles to the sun, so I could make the round trip there almost two and three-quarters times. And, depending on where Mars is, I could get there and back either 7 times or once.

On the high end of the leak estimates, I’m looking at being able to travel about 4,400,000,000 (that’s 4.4 billion) miles! That could get me to Pluto when it’s at its closest.

Obviously, I know my car couldn’t travel in outer space, but it’s interesting to think of what the oil that’s leaking into the Gulf of Mexico could have done.

The low estimate of the leak is far lower than the amount of oil being produced per day for our consumption, but the high estimate is getting up there… a bit more than China and Iran produce in a day. Interestingly, depending on the estimate you choose to look at, we are either looking at a disaster that is simply two times as large as the Exxon Valdez or something that is somewhere between the first and second worst oil spill in history.

I can only hope that the worst case estimates are not correct, but regardless, this is big and is bound to get bigger until it is fixed. The numbers and constant news reports are mind-numbing, but don’t get complacent.

If it matters to you, make some noise that this is not what you want for your world.

5 Responses to “Watching the Numbers Go By”

  1. DataJack on June 1, 2010 3:56 pm

    It probably won’t do any good, but if you are American, you can write, phone, or email your congress critters. There is going to be a lot of ecosystem damage to the gulf for many, many years. Millions of dead sea, marsh, and shore creatures. It is so sad.

  2. Matt on June 1, 2010 4:44 pm

    For years we have tried the approach of scaring the industries into reducing our need for oil. We pass laws telling them, “you better make cars with high MPG or else.” When are we going to try positive reinforcement?

    When are we going to go out and and have our, “our man on the moon?” Why don’t we way to the car industries, the first company to 25K cars in one year with 40mpg, get a 2% tax break.

    The oil spill is tragic, but I believe will result in more tragedy. BP needs to be held accountable, but we are going to ultimately pay for this. No matter what law is passed, lawsuit is filed, or action is taken, consumers are going to pay for it.

    Lets pass laws that give companies incentive to invest in real technologies to get us off of oil. Lets put incentives in place which spark innovation, not just threaten into submission.

    Positive reinforcement works on Kids, employees, little companies and even the big Companies. Lets pass some laws that will give companies the reason to take that chance and invest in new technology to do something good. Not threaten them into it.

    We have tried to scare the world into doing better for 30 years now and have not made real steps forward. Lets try something new, before the next big disaster or war.

  3. T.J. on June 7, 2010 11:04 am

    I was just wondering if you’d seen this site:

    Really puts the spill in perspective….


  4. Dale Basler on June 11, 2010 12:16 pm

    You’ll need to cut these numbers down a bit since your car doesn’t run on crude oil.

    Perhaps a better way to go is to use Barrel of Oil Equivalents (BOE). Every 42 gallons is one BOE. At the current USGS estimate (84,000 gallons or 20,000 BOE/day) we see the gulf is spilling energy at a rate of 1410 Megawatts.

    Wolfram Alpha gives us some comparisons:

  5. Paul on June 25, 2010 4:01 pm

    I’m not sure making noise will make any difference. Exxon Valdez filled the news cycles with terrible images of the symbol of our nation, the bald eagle, drenched in oil. That was 1989. The next 20 years were the heyday of the SUV and a housing boom that made hour long commutes sound normal.

    Making noise only helps if the people listening don’t have their heads buried in troughs full of money.

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