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How big is the oil spill? Web site lets you drop the slick on your city

By Garance Franke-Ruta

It is easy to lose perspective when confronted with the vast expanse of the open ocean. Objects as seen from space likewise can throw off the human sense of scale, rendering man-made fortifications or disasters as lines and splotches the size of a thumb.

Now, the engineering manager for Google Maps is trying to help folks regain a sense of scale when it comes to assessing just how big the massive oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico is -- by giving users a chance to compare it to their own backyards.

Using an image of the spill from May 4th, Paul Rademacher launched a site Friday morning to help people turn the numbers in the news -- 200,000 gallons a day are gushing forth, the equivalent of 5,000 barrels -- into something more down to earth.

"The data and the statistics when it came out included very large numbers," Rademacher, reached by phone, said. "I can't visualize 5,000 barrels. I don't even really know how big one barrel is... 200,000 gallons is also a very large number....but again, I have no sense of scale around it."

"It just occurred to me that there is this large mass that's in the ocean and what would it look like if it were compared to something I could easy relate to," he added, "and the thing that you can most easily relate to is the place where you live. So the question was: 'what would this spill look like if happened in my home town?' And the results were pretty dramatic."

So he chose a few major cities -- New York, San Francisco, Paris -- and overlaid them onto Google Earth, along with an option to drop the oil slick on your own home town. The results are stark. Choose Manhattan and the more than 2,500 square mile spill extends from Plainfield, N.J., to Southampton, N.Y., blotting out Newark, New York, Jersey City, Yonkers. Drop the slick on the District and it extends from Manassas to Baltimore, covers parts of the Delmarva coast and blots out all of Prince George's County. Choose your own city, and the results are equally striking.

And it has only grown in size since Tuesday.

Nor is he alone in his efforts to give the numbers some easy to understand points of comparison. Architect Hulett Jones created a YouTube showing that just two days of 5,000 barrel-a-day oil flow would comprise the volume of a 3.5 story Victorian house of the type one finds in San Francisco, where he works at the firm Jones Haydu. It went up online Monday.

And Google's own crisis response page on the spill allows readers to compare the size of the spill from day to day.


Mike Shepard

 |  May 7, 2010; 11:52 PM ET Save & Share:  Send E-mail   Facebook   Twitter   Digg   Yahoo Buzz   StumbleUpon   Technorati  
Previous: Northern Virginia ads urge Obama to halt offshore drilling plan | Next: Despite oil slick, fishermen in one Gulf Coast town keep their lines in the water

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