Tuesday, June 22, 2010

The Spill in Perspective

In round figures, let's say 12 million gallons of oil have spilled since the Deepwater Horizon platform sank on April 24 (that assumes 200,000 gallons a day for 60 days).

The Gulf of Mexico contains 660 quadrillion gallons of water.

Imagine that the Gulf were the size of an Olympic-sized swimming pool (which contains about 660,000 gallons of water). On that scale, how much oil do you think has been spilled so far? About a bucket? Nope. Maybe a cup? Not even close. Perhaps a thimble? Much less even than that.

The correct figure is a volume equal to 1/14 of a single M&M candy. You can do the math yourself and verify this.

Of course, the effect will be magnified as the oil arrives on the beaches - it will be concentrated from a diffuse cloud in the ocean to the surf line. But we're still talking about an incredibly small amount of oil here. Something to bear in mind.


  1. But most of the volume of water in the Gulf is irrelevant, James. The oil floats on the surface of the water, so all that water volume below the surface just doesn't enter into the equation at all. It could go down infinitely below the surface, and it still wouldn't matter.

    This spill has potential to kill an awful lot of wildlife, ruin the livelihood of a lot of fishermen and those who depend on beach tourism for their living. AND it's still going on, last I heard, because they have failed to stop it.

    It's not the relative amounts that are important...it's the effects those amounts have. One grain of plutonium the size of a grain of sand is insignificant compared to the volume of the human body....but introduce that tiny bit into the bloodstream, and a person will die. Lets hope this bit of oil won't kill the environment of the Gulf and its coasts.

  2. P.S.

    Your 12 million figure may not be accurate. An article today said "It has spewed anywhere from 67 million to 127 million gallons of oil". Not sure what figure is actually true

    Here's the article where I got that quote:

    In any event, the spill isn't going to be good for the environment. I'm hoping BP can actually suck up and recover a lot of that oil (or better yet, any recovered by the government becomes the property of the government -- a few less tax dollars we have to spend on oil)

  3. @Gary: Make it 1.2 billion gallons. It's still literally less than a drop in the bucket.

    I do not say, btw, that the spill won't be environmentally damaging. Of course it will be. But it's worth bearing in mind the magnitude of oil involved when visualizing what's going on down there. We should not exaggerate the impact.

    (As to your point about volume versus surface area: this doesn't help to make the amount seem greater. An Olympic-sized pool is much deeper, proportionally, than the Gulf, so its surface area is proportionally much smaller. A volume with a greater surface area will have less surface covered by oil than our hypothetical pool containing a drop of oil.)