155.6 swimming pools of oil

I love data.  And I love it when people take abstract concepts and try to put them in terms that people can relate to.  The most recent example has been the oil spill.  It’s nigh-on impossible to visualise the quantity of oil that has leaked from the Deepwater Horizon well since 22 April.  So many have tried to give estimates that we can relate to.  All of the quotes below are from different sources, found courtesy of Alan.

[The] flow rate […] would fill more than 50 swimming pools per day.

The Coast Guard [said] earlier it was at least 1.6 million gallons [since the spill started]—equivalent to about 2½ Olympic-sized swimming pools.

BP’s estimated 5,000 barrels a day […] would be approximately 150,000 barrels (or 6,300,000 gallons). That’s barely enough to fill 286 swimming pools: sixteen feet, by thirty-two feet, by eight and a half feet deep.

Once the pipe has been cut, the oil will spew into the Gulf of Mexico unobstructed, enough to fill an average swimming pool every hour

In just one day, the oil leaked would be enough to fill up six Olympic-sized swimming pools .

The only consistency here is the unit of measurement.  (It seems that the SI unit for oil is the Olympic-size swimming pool.)  The quantities are either formed of very varied guesswork or extremely poor arithmetic.  Probably a combination of the two.

My own estimate, based on an average between a low and a high estimate of the volume, was that as of 3 June, the oil would be sufficient to fill 155 Olympic-size swimming pools, with enough left over to start filling the 156th pool.  But this meant nothing to me.  So I changed the frame of reference.

If the oil was solid and laid evenly over the entirety of Hyde Park, it would form a paste 40 metres deep, equivalent to nine London buses stacked vertically.  Sounds a lot, doesn’t it?

Yet if the oil was to fall as snow over the entirety of the UK, it would amount to 0.2 seconds of snowfall.  Nothing at all, right?

While units that we are more familiar with help us visualise things that are intangible to us, they also serve to create dramatic headlines, headlines that could equally be replaced with innocuous ones if the newspapers were driven by ambivalence.

And who’d want to swim in oil anyway?