The news on the BP spill today was mixed. On the one hand, BP is finally pumping heavy drilling mud to seal the well for good. On the other hand, scientists in the Flow Rate Technical Group, supervised by the U.S. Geological Survey and the U.S. Department of Energy report that the”Macondo well spewed 62,000 barrels of oil a day initially, and as the reservoir gradually depleted itself, the flow eased to 53,000 barrels a day until the well was finally capped and sealed July 15″ (Washington Post). That leaves a total flow of 4.9 million barrels.
But how much is 4.9 million barrels?
We all clearly recognize that this is a very large number, but what we really need is perspective. To quote Anton Ego – the dynamic villain turned hero of Disney’s Ratatoille – “After reading a lot of overheated puffery… you know what I’m craving? A little perspective. That’s it. I’d like some fresh, clear, well seasoned perspective. Can you suggest a good wine to go with that?”
The fact is, humans are visual creatures. We have weak eyes, yet a significant portion of our brains is dedicated to deciphering visual cues. We think through visual metaphors. So, just as we have a difficult time imagining (note the root: image) the vast quantities of invisible methane that spewed out of the Macondo well along with the oil, we have a hard time envisioning just how much oil 4.9 million barrels is.
As if this visioning task was not difficult enough already, it has been made immeasurably more difficult by the numerous misleading maps like the popular NYT interactive graphic which shows the oil slick first as a growing 2-dimensional surface feature (the vast majority of the oil never made it to the surface so this is a gross misrepresentation of the spill) and later as a zero-dimensional image which seems to imply ‘problem solved’. When combined with the successful capping of the well, and the good news about the mud kill, I fear this story will soon vanish from the minds of the greater populous. And that will be a shame.
That said, let’s see if we can do some simple math and transform 5,000,000 barrels into a much more manageable figure… I’ve always been fond of the number ’2′. After all it is easy to remember and carries a certain mystique. For the biblically inclined, Noah led animals two by two onto the Arc. And for those with Darwinian inclinations that lean more towards evolutionism than creationism, our chromosomes also come in pairs (as do our jeans, but for some reason, I don’t think the fashion-inclined set reads my blog).
So there we have it. A goal. Express the oil spill in 2 tangible units. Read more…