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Your mileage may vary…

FIRST POSTED: 18/07/17

It is very common for newspapers, and the media in general, especially when speaking of areas affected by ‘natural’ or ‘non-natural’ causes (think forest fires and oil slicks) to try to use comparisons with existing areas – cities, provinces, states – which are well-known and understood by local people and therefore easy to visualise. That, I think, is a very useful way to inform the public of the extent of the damage, if indeed damage it is, although using comparisons of this kind can be helpful in other, more positive ways.

The key word in the previous paragraph is ‘local’. Obviously saying that an oil slick covers an area the size of Brisbane may mean a lot to people in Australia but very little to people in other (most?) parts of the world. If you were a stranger or a tourist lost in North Wales and were trying to find Mynytho, and someone kindly informed you that it was approximately halfway between Llandbedrog and Nant-Rhiwdar, that would be of very little use to you, unless you knew where both of the other villages were, and the distance between them.

Logically enough, the media try to employ meaningful comparisons, and using local areas as a ‘yardstick’ seems to me to be the right way to go about it. However, the cities, provinces, islands and other territorial entities do not often match the affected area exactly, or even very closely, so fractions and multiples come into play (one quarter of Wales, 7 times Berlin, 3 Tenerifes, 86 Copenhagens…) and even then the comparison is approximate, at best, although I would imagine that for most people, approximate is close enough.

What happens though when the wrong territory is chosen when making the comparison and the idea transmitted to the reader/viewer bears little resemblance to the real size of the affected area? *Recently* (July 2017, original post), a large chunk of ice has broken off (‘calved’ is the official, lovely expression) from the Larsen C ice shelf in Antarctica and the media are having fun describing the size of this iceberg, and the threat it imposes. Iceberg A68 is large, without a doubt, but how large, and how large a threat is it?

To the best of my knowledge, no one disputes that Iceberg A68 is approximately 5,800 km2 in area and I’m going to use that figure as the basis of what follows, but first, a tangent. We have all seen comparisons of this type many times in the media and – exaggerating wildly – I would say that small areas are frequently measured in / compared to *football pitches and larger areas in ‘Belgiums’. ‘Football’ here means soccer, not American football. I do not know why Belgium seems to have cornered the ‘country as comparison’ market but I do see the sense of the football pitch comparison. Almost everyone can imagine the size of a football pitch and can calculate how long it would take to walk the perimeter of one, or indeed two, pitches. Therefore, a football pitch serves a useful purpose here. Not all football pitches were created equal and most football fans know that there is no official fixed size, but there are maximum and minimum sizes and the shape must, of course, be rectangular. For my own purposes here I am going to accept the size ‘preferred’ by many professional teams, namely 105 metres long and 68 metres wide, making an area of 7,140 square metres. More on this later. Tangent ends…

In the early days of this story I saw wildly differing comparisons in the press and in the social media, all quoting the ‘local’ comparisons, and most of the territories mentioned were unhelpful to me in visualising the size of Iceberg A68. Over the years I had often wondered about the accuracy of this type of comparison and therefore thought it might be a good moment to check the rigour of the media in the comparisons they published. I asked my friends via the social media to report what territories were being used in their local media and I received a lot of useful information. Thanks to all. All I had to do then was use Wikipedia to learn the real area of these territories and get to work comparing the real area of these territories to Iceberg A68. I have to say that I was astonished to see the results and I have created some charts to display the accuracy, or more frequently, the inaccuracy of the published comparisons.

In Chart 1 there is a list of approximately 20 territories starting from the smallest (the island of Tobago) to the largest (two Belgiums). In order to make it clear which comparisons are too small and which are too large, I have assigned Iceberg A68 a value of 100 as the baseline. There are *nine territories with values less than 100 (smaller than the Iceberg) and also *nine territories with values more than 100 (bigger than the Iceberg). *Jamaica and Mallorca were both mentioned twice and I have included both the values of both islands. If all these figures are to believed, both Jamaica and Mallorca are simultaneously bigger than and smaller than Iceberg A68.

Which comparisons were the most accurate?
In Chart 1 I have coloured the row containing the Iceberg A68 data in blue and the two rows nearest to this blue row are highlighted in Turquoise to show their proximity to the size of the iceberg, and therefore the accuracy of the comparison.

Congratulations then to County Mayo, reported by Dermott Sellars although he doesn’t mention his source (please send it, Dermott, if you can remember). County Mayo, at 5,586 square kms, is 96% the size of the Iceberg and no one came closer than this. The nearest comparison on the plus side was/were the ‘Three Tenerifes’, reported by Lea Schramek, quoting the Süddeutsche Zeitung, which amounted between them to 105% of the Iceberg. Pretty close. The majority of the data are around the central point and the extreme data are, as you can imagine, found at the extremes. Tobago, and the double Belgium, are highlighted in yellow to show the extreme under– and over–estimate, respectively. More information on this in Chart 2a and 2b.

Looking at Chart 2a (above) we see that the row with data on Iceberg A68 is again in blue and represents 100%; it is the baseline. The row containing data on County Mayo is almost as long (in fact it is as long, as I could not split a cell) as the Iceberg and I also include – also in yellow – Mallorca as a comparison. Finally, at the top of Chart 2a we see data on Tobago. The single Excel cell compared to the 20 cells of the baseline show that the size of Tobago is 5% of the size of Iceberg A68.

In Chart 2b (above) we see the opposite phenomenon; comparisons which exceed reality by large degrees. In this chart, Iceberg A68 again serves as the baseline ‘100’ (in this case represented by two cells). The three Tenerifes shown directly below Iceberg A68 show how close the comparison is and then we see the two extreme inaccuracies at the ‘too big’ end of the continuum. Lake Erie, as we see from the yellow cells in that row, is almost 9 times bigger than Iceberg A68, and finally the two Belgiums which added together make an area of 61,000 square kms, more than 10.5 times the size of the iceberg.

In other words, the difference between the biggest error on the ‘too small’ side and the biggest error on the ‘too big’ side of the continuum is a factor of 200. Two Belgiums are 203 times bigger than 1 Tobago, and they are supposed to be approximately the same size as each other, and both are supposed to be approximately the same size as Iceberg A68. One wonders whatever happened to journalistic rigour and fact checking.

Returning to football pitches, alert readers/anoraks will recall that one football pitch is 7,140 square meters and in one square kilometre we could fit in 140 EUFA-sized football pitches. Column 4 (in Chart 1) shows the total area of the territory in square metres divided by 140, in order to calculate the number of football pitches for all the territories in the chart. The smallest number is obviously Tobago and even though it is only 5% of the size of the iceberg, the figure of 42,000 football pitches is not really helpful. More than a dozen football pitches is about the limit, I think; beyond this the average person does not find this kind of information remotely helpful. The fact that one could play more than 8 million football matches simultaneously in Belgium without encroaching on another pitch in order to ask for one’s ball back is surely interesting, but hardly enlightening.


Maybe the press could benefit from a new scale of comparisons, possibly adding a new, intermediate, scale and renaming the too big and too small side.

Hackney Marshes in London has 88 full-sized football pitches – let’s round it up to one hundred – and so we could have a comparison scale with the football pitch (fp) as the basic unit, the HM as 100 fps (1 HM = 100fp) and 500 HMs = 1.00 x New York City.

1 fp = 1 football pitch (fp)
100 fps = 1 Hackney Marsh (HM)
500 HMs = 1 New York City (NYC)

Everybody happy?

This Post Has 5 Comments

  1. Ben Fotut

    Marc. Fascinating,. and impressive the time you’ve dedicated to solving the mystery of how worryingly big poor calved A68 really is. I’m surprised that Berlin is bigger than 1/4 of Wales, and that Copenhagen is bigger than Berlin (although, never having been to Berlin, I’m not sure why). Whatever, great to see you back blogging.

    Hi Ben,
    I had mentioned early the fractional or multiple natures of the comparisons and I suppose I should have (re)stated that the Berlin reference was x7 (sounds like an Audi), and the Copenhagen was x86 (sounds like a computer chip). That would make Wales approximate more to Berlin than the chart suggested. Ditto for Copenhagen (sound like a Lucinda Williams song).
    No other comments so far on the blog (plenty on facebook, some polite). so thanks for getting the ball rolling.

  2. Ben Fotut

    This makes me think that my maths knowledge hasn’t advanced since I was 5.

  3. Robert Southon

    Mr Marc,
    As I recently commented to you elsewhere, I wrote a response to this post when you first published it but forgot to post. I think I wanted to end with a flourish or something. Anyway, sorry about that and here it is now, unedited (uncorrected for the two months that have passed since then). Thanks again for your post and I hope my response still contributes something. Cheers.

    “I have to confess I had been following the A68/ Larsen C iceberg for several weeks prior to the moment it broke off from the ice shelf. At that time, following it was not a very dynamic mission, since before it broke off, it wasn’t actually going anywhere. In fact, even now, it’s not going anywhere very fast at all, and if you could see it you’d say it doesn’t even look like it is, because it is still completely surrounded by ice – by the ice shelf on one side and by winter sea ice on the other. And another reason it doesn’t look like it’s going anywhere is because you can’t actually even see it: down in the deep south where it is located, it’s still completely dark, immersed in the night of the Antarctic winter. The opposite of photogenic. Moreover, since Antarctic temperatures are still dropping towards their winter 2017 lows, I should think it’s quite possible that Mr Larsen the Giant Iceberg is going to once again get fruz onto the ice blocks around him for a while and may already be, albeit temporarily and rather weakly, fused to the mainland once again, at least at some points of its considerable length.

    But did you read about any of this in the media reports? Of course not, because it did not suit the desired story which, by and large, went like this: Panic! Horror! The climate is changing in a yyyuge way, especially at the poles, as evidenced by this yyyuge new iceberg.

    So thank you for your post, in the first place, for not joining the legions of media who reacted to this event by falsely claiming it as evidence of accelerated climate change that we should be incredibly worried about. The climate *is* changing, and may be changing more quickly than the current official predictions suggest, and thus, as long as you promise it’s not because of A68, you can panic if you want… indeed, we all need to be very concerned about this planetary disaster which is unfolding and to start taking coordinated action on a massive scale. But the calving of this berg from the Larsen C ice shelf is regarded by Antarctic experts as a normal cyclic event that happens from time to time (as distinct from an ice shelf *collapse* – which led to the permanent loss of the neighbouring Larsen A and B shelves years ago, and was regarded as being a consequence of climate change).

    And the larger question is, how are we possibly going to even get as far as winning over the climate deniers if our media information is no more reliable or intelligent than theirs?

    And in that regard your post was a useful exposé. In spite of the fact that the event was entirely predictable – I personally saw it unfolding over weeks – and that knowledgeable, creative writers on the subject could have worked ahead of time to prepare the definitive, authoritative and compelling story on this iceberg calving, what happened at the moment of the calving was that any authoritative reports that appeared were less attractive than the simplified and scandalously incorrect stories that played on our fears and either explicitly or implicitly linked A68 with our impending demise.

    And one aspect of the misinformation in these news reports was due to the failure of these “journalists” to think much about what might have been the most imagination-capturing way of referring to the most awe-inspiring thing about this iceberg which also happens to be true: its size.

    And so they botched it, as you have chronicled.

    For what it’s worth, I would have compared it to an island. Because an iceberg is island-like. Because an island has clear limits. Because if you know an island, or are used to seeing it on a map, you can pretty easily imagine the scale of what’s being talked about. And also because the idea of something as big as an island floating off and going to another part of the world is enough to capture the imagination.

    The specific island would have depended on the audience but there are some good ones. Mallorca and Bali are good approximations that many people know. But the best, especially for the US market, would have undoubtedly been Long Island, which has the same shape as A68. Long Island is slightly …longer; A68 is considerably fatter. But it’s the symbolism of it which gets you above all: Long Island is right beside New York, in fact its snout is part of New York City. Can you imagine this huge lump of ice, miles and miles long camped just beyond the skyscrapers of Manhattan, threatening to smash them to bits with one whimsical storm-propelled thrust?”

    1. Mike

      Thanks. I think I may have missed your long comment when it was freshly written but I have just revamped the blog and am editing older posts, deleting unwanted posts and so on,. Thanks for the interesting comments which I am sorry to say I didn’t thank you for until now. the new blog will be found at and the kollagenikov will redirect here for a while until the teething troubles are dealt with. It will then be retired to the digital equivalent of the elephants’ graveyard. Hope you and the family are well. We must have a beer or two before winter returns.

      1. marc

        On checking, I see that Mallorca is just 10 km2 smaller than Long Island, although population density is obviously radically different.Cheers.

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